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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 22 Apr 2004 11:19:20 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Janice


_Shohola Falls_. By Michael Pearson. Syracuse University Press, 2003. Pp.
204. Cloth. $24.95. ISBN 0-8156-0785-7.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Janice McIntire-Strasburg
St. Louis University

Copyright  2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Where does creative non-fiction end, and "true" fiction begin?  The
question is often a thorny one, and Michael Pearson's body of work up to
and including _Shohola Falls_ is a case in point. His texts defy
classification in the same way that _Roughing It_, Mark Twain's
quintessential Western travel book does. As a "travel book," _Roughing It_
contains much that is fictionalized, some "true" experiences, and a number
of tall tales, sketches, and "stretchers." Pearson's earlier works fall
into the category of creative non-fiction, which may explain Syracuse
University Press's publication of a work of "fiction" like _Shohola Falls_,
and why Pearson himself appears to be fascinated with the blurry territory
between truth and fiction. _Imagined Places: Journeys into Literary
America_ describes Pearson's own journey into the literary landscapes of
Robert Frost's Vermont, William Faulkner's Mississippi, Flannery O'Connor's
Georgia, Ernest Hemingway's Key West, and Mark Twain's Missouri. While
_Imagined Places_ contains biographies of the authors, it is less about
them than it is about how place and space affect the literary mind.
Pearson's _Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx_ has been reviewed
as evocative of the literary geography of growing up in the Bronx of the
1950s. Thus, Pearson's works tend to transcend categories in many of the
same ways that Mark Twain's did. It seems fitting, then, that young Tommy
Blanks, the protagonist of _Shohola Falls_, draws from the character of
Huck Finn to make his own connections to his personal coming of age. The
novel is like Pearson's previous works, yet at the same time very
different. It innovatively explores the boundaries of fiction and creative
non-fiction in an utterly fascinating way.

"My name is Tommy Blanks. Or at least that's close enough to the truth for
now. I've found in the last few years that some lies are nearer to what's
true than most of us ever expect to come, anyway. So I don't draw too many
hard or fast lines between what's imagined and what's recollected.
Sometimes what we dream up is real enough to live with and turns out to be
the story of our lives. Our lies may turn out to be what was true all

This opening short paragraph sets up an echo of _Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_ that continues to resonate through the story of young Tommy Blanks
(Blankenship), who turns out to be the great-great grandson of Tom
Blankenship, boyhood friend to Samuel Clemens. The book is really only a
touchstone for Twain, although it contains many "truths" from Twain's own
life. Tommy Blanks is a young boy, much like Huck, who uses fiction,
including and primarily _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ as a method of
dealing with (and avoiding) his own life. Pearson deftly weaves a storyline
that utilizes information about the fictional Huck Finn and the biographies
of Sam Clemens and Tom Blankenship that evokes Twain while at the same time
telling his own bildungsroman set in America's sixties.

Young Tommy Blanks endures hardship, the death of his mother and
disappearance of his father. He is arrested for shoplifting _Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn_, and many situations in his life closely parallel Huck's
journey. The title, _Shohola Falls_, is drawn from an idyllic pool and
waterfall located in Pennsylvania that is evocative of the safety Huck and
Jim find on the Mississippi river raft. It is the trysting place for
lovers; a place where Tommy can avoid officials from the Boys Home; and
where he can avoid facing his own demons and the effects of his
relationship with a mulatto girlfriend.  Eventually, Tommy must leave the
safety of the Falls--lighting out for California to find the lost journal
that his great-great grandfather, Tom Blankenship, has left for him. There
are plenty of references throughout to Twain and his writings. Twainians
will recognize information gleaned from Twain's letters, his autobiography,
and his fiction embedded within Tommy's story, although they are not always
attributed to their original sources.

Also of interest are plot twists that, though they may be completely
fictionalized occurrences for Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens), complicate
our beliefs about what Twain actually thought or why. Blankenship's
"journal" creates a story about Sam Clemens as a teenager, who falls in
love with a Hannibal mulatto girl; young Sam leaves town because he can't
face their racial differences. Blankenship eventually marries this girl,
who is Tommy's great-great grandmother. Tommy's quest for the journal
begins when he leaves behind his own girlfriend for similar reasons.

Pearson himself claims that he has attempted to stay true to the historical
record when there was one, but that "fact and fiction do nurture each
other" and that in the case of Tom Blankenship, "because little is known, I
was left free to imagine what might have happened to the real-life Huck
Finn" (203). The Blankenship "journal entries" bear out the author's
assessment. While they give readers the "look and feel" of truth, they are
clearly imaginative, often "borrowed" from Pearson's sources, and
ultimately serve Tommy's process of finding himself during a time when the
image of Vietnam loomed large in every teenager and San Francisco was
Mecca. Pearson uses the facts of Mark Twain's life and the fictional facts
of Huck Finn's in some most unusual and interesting ways to advance his own
tale. Of particular interest to Twain scholars is a parallel to Huck's
justification of stealing (found on page 9); the creative use of material
from Paine's _Autobiography_, (186); and a parallel to the discovery of the
first half of the _Huck Finn_ manuscript in a California attic.

In his afterward, Pearson notes that though he could "try to note each
instance of the convergence of history and the imagination and each point
where they diverge," he purposely has not. His reasoning: "First, there are
mysteries in a book even for the one who wrote it, and I hope that along
the way readers will point some of them out to me. Second, and more
important, I'll leave the profound exploring of such territory to the
reader. Creating too many road signs would only turn an adventure into a
tour" (204).  His sentiments cannot but be endorsed by his readers. While
one might certainly read Pearson's novel as _Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_ revisited and updated, the novel is much more than that, and deserves
reading in its own right. Pearson has accomplished much more than a
"rewritten" Huck. This text fictionalizes Twain's earlier works in a most
unusual and fascinating way. I found this novel to be both a contemplative
and a fun read, and recommend it highly on its own merits, regardless of
how one feels about Mark Twain. Pearson is a talented writer with a flair
for description and complicated web-weaving.  His novel asks the same
question I posed at the beginning of this review, and then attempts to
answer it through the life experiences of its protagonist.