I had a review for this book half written, and then I looked through it again. I caught the variety of voices - Twain's, his daughter Susy's, and the author's. I surveyed the back matter - author's notes on Twain and on Susy, and a one-page outline of "How To Write a Biography." And I don't know, man. I'm not sure this is so much a library book as it is a textbook, and I mean that in a good way. It's readable, entertaining, true, and totally instructive. Possibly it should be required in every elementary school classroom.
Much has been written about Mark Twain, one of America's best-known novelists. He has been biographized for all ages and all reading levels. The extraordinary Barbara Kerley (The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, You and Me Together, and Greetings From Planet Earth to name just a few) had been thinking about doing it herself when she came across an interesting fact: Twain's daughter Susy had done it, at the age of thirteen.
What a gold mine, right? Firsthand observations of the biographee by a biographer who knows what young people want to know because she is one herself! So Kerley gets her hands on microfilm of the complete manuscript, finds just the right excerpts, and fills in just the right background and geographical details.
- A cutaway of the Twain house in Hartford shows us Susy observing her Papa all over the house - talking to the cats, reading in bed, striding about the dining room pontificating between courses.
- We are taken to the family's country retreat - Susy's aunt's house - and given a rundown of daily life there.
- Twain's writing process is described in detail, including Mrs. Clemens' judicious editing - she is shown toning down the rougher areas, while the Clemens daughters look on ruefully.
The book is brilliantly designed as well. Twain quotes appear in one typeface, Susy's in another, and Susy's writing is bound into Barbara's larger book as little journal pages. I don't know who thought of that, but it's genius. Hey and speaking of larger books, could publishers please quit with the oversize? Lots of libraries cannot accomodate the tall books, especially in non-fiction, and must shelve them spine-up instead of spine-out, which means they circulate less. (This message has been brought to you by me, Charlotte, Kate, Irene, and a whole bunch of other school librarians.)
If you bought The Trouble Begins at 8 by Sid Fleischman (my respects, old man, you will be missed) last year, you might be thinking twice about buying a second Twain title so soon. But do. The two books complement each other, and this one is for a younger audience.Susy was Twain's favorite daughter, and she died at the age of 24. As it happens, I ran across Laura Skandera Trombley's new book Mark Twain's Other Woman while I was assembling this review, and found this tragic paragraph:
Twain was alone [in London, after a twelve-month world lecture tour] when a second cable arrived... informing him that Susy, his favorite daughter and the child most similar to him in many respects, had died an agonizing death from meningitis at the family's home in Hartford while her mother and sister were still en route. For two weeks, Susy's fever spiraled and she grew delirious, sometimes wandering through the empty house... As the infection spread, she went blind. She found a gown belonging to [her mother] Olivia hanging in a closet and spent her last hours stroking and kissing the dress, believing in her delirium that her mother was dead... For the rest of his life, Twain mourned his lost daughter."
I am so glad that Barbara Kerley has given us the bright and bold Susy, as well as her famous father.
Tricia is hosting Nonfiction Monday today at The Miss Rumphius Effect.