I have this thing about Mark Twain. I loved Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn well enough, I suppose, but more than that, there's something about the author himself--his Americana, perhaps--that affects me. Thinking about Mark Twain is kind of how I feel when I watch America: The Story of Us--like he's a crucial part of our collective history, like we are all his children and we're all in this together, swimming the Mississippi and sucking on blades of grass with him. Mark Twain is ours. Someone else I love is illustrator Edward Fotheringham. Now, as much as I respect their craft, I don't follow illustrators' careers or even the picture book industry very much (I'm a little too enthralled with YA, obvs). But when my niece was born last year and I began buying books in bulk for her, I discovered Fotheringham, and his work just blows me away. It's this perfectly peculiar mix of traditional and modern, and his subject matter is always so unique and compelling (hello, The Mermaid Queen! Who knew?) and I buy his books because they truly captivate me in a way that I'm not sure any other picture book does.
So, here's what I'm getting at: there's a new book about Mark Twain, called The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy), and it's illustrated by Fotheringham and written by Barbara Kerley (who previously partnered with Fotheringham on another book I love, What to Do About Alice?). What makes this book about Twain so extraordinary is that it weaves in the real words, in the real handwriting, from Twain's 13-year-old daughter, Susy, who was secretly chronicling his life. The New York Times reviewed it, and it's a great review, and absolutely worthy of a read. But what got me most was this:
Twain turned morose at the end. He believed the worst about the human anthill and knew just where we were all going, which, as Huck says, was to “the bad place” — a mood hinted at in this book, whose end brings double heartbreak. The first comes in the way Susy winds up her book on Twain, on a family trip to Iowa in 1886: “We have arrived in Keokuk after a very pleasant — ” And that’s it. Leaving off in mid-sentence like this probably means she was called away for dinner, or to see some spectacle, but suggests a greater going away, that shift known to all parents, that moment when Susy discovered a subject beyond her father. One afternoon, in Iowa, Susy Clemens was done writing about Mark Twain.
Emphasis mine, because really? Is that not the most beautiful, heartbreaking sentence you've ever read?