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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A fine old river journey comes alive again

I got covid in April (I'm fine now, yay), and during the two weeks I was sick and the long, up-and-down recovery that followed, I read and read and read. The library was closed so I kept on scouring my shelves, and the book I’m most grateful to have found is a novel about journeying down the Mississippi River in post-Civil War America. I had loved it after my dad, who was a great reader, gave it to me at about 12 — then I found it again a while ago, in a wonderful used-book store here in Middlebury, Vt. It’s not Huckleberry Finn, it’s Robert Lewis Taylor’s 1961 Journey to Matecumbe.

Matecumbe is kin to Huck not just in its geography but also as a treatment of racism. Huck’s raft-mate the runaway slave Jim is sympathetic and smart, a bold portrayal for a white author of the time; Taylor’s young narrator Davey is on the run from Kentucky with his Confederate veteran Uncle Jim, after they’ve violently blocked the Ku Klux Klan from burning out a Black landowner and his family. Both novels are bright and vivid yarns, with deep humor, abiding humanity and one escapade after another — and both sketch memorable scenes on the great river.

“We were under way by dawn nearly every morning,” Taylor’s Davey relates. “The river has a good smell then; wet, and fishy, and cool, but sometimes a little too fishy, if it’s dropping and dead ones are left lying along the banks to rot.” Or this, describing a paddlewheeler at night: “Here came one along, lit up like a jack-o-lantern, furnace doors open, blowing out sparks, decks gleaming like ropes of jewels even this late, and bows grinning like monstrous white teeth.”

Matecumbe is even a more cohesive novel than Huck, which famously devolves into aimless invention in its latter chapters. All the aspects of Davey and Uncle Jim’s journey are pulled together and resolved, with drama and surprises, after they reach their destination Matecumbe in the Florida Keys. Of course, Twain’s great book is an American classic — Hemingway even once wrote that it’s “the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that” — while Journey to Matecumbe is all but forgotten. It was fairly successful in its day, but it has just eight reviews on Amazon now. You can’t get it for your Kindle at all.

But open Taylor’s book and Davey’s alive all over again, with his skiff-full of unruly characters and his unstaunchable vibrance. “As I look ahead,” he concludes, “I can see all manner of woman troubles coming. But Uncle Jim says I can solve them. ‘Davey, old scamp,’ he says ... ‘You were fifty years old than me the day you were born.’”

He’s ageless now, back on my bookshelf where he'll stay, at least until I can find someone, maybe around 12 years old, who likes to read and might enjoy a good adventure, down an old river in America.

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