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You Don't Know About Me cover
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
  You Don't Know about Me

by Brian Meehl

OMany remakes of classic stories stay so close to their source texts that it seems pointless not to simply read the original. Others use their source text as a thin veneer in an attempt to lend some gravitas to the new, decidedly lesser production. Sometimes, though, the remake gets it just right—not only adopting the plot and character arcs that made the first book great but also manipulating the style and sensibilities of the source text to refresh and renew our acquaintance with it, all while creating a story that stands alone on its merits. You Don’t Know about Me, Brian Meehl’s revision of Huckleberry Finn, is one of those.

Billy Albright has been reared as a Christian outlaw, following his fanatical mother in her quest to stamp out the devil wherever he may show himself, from protesting at gay weddings, to taking a Sharpie to products in the grocery store containing the word “devil,” to shaving the heads of Tickle Me Elmo dolls (whose Satanic crime is that they teach kids about unbridled pleasure). They call themselves “Jesus-throated Whac-a-moles,” and they are rare birds indeed. But when a Bible arrives in the mail with a DVD hidden in its leather binding, Billy finds out that his righteous mother has been lying to him about his father’s having died when Billy was a baby. Instead, his father, now dying and, if the video can be believed, probably already dead for real this time, has staged a cross-country geocaching treasure hunt for Billy to find his inheritance--the copy of Richard Irving Dodge’s Thirty-Three Years Among Our Wild Indians scribbled through with marginalia by Mark Twain, including plans for a never-finished sequel to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Billy runs away to follow the clues, and his quest becomes a twenty-first-century mirror of Huck’s as he takes up with Ruah, a black baseball player with a big heart and a big secret. At each checkpoint, Billy’s father has left pages of Huckleberry Finn with an embedded code that indicates the whereabouts of the next clue, and Ruah insists that he will take Billy wherever he needs to go if Billy will read the pages aloud to him as he drives.

From Billy’s wide-eyed naïveté, to his and Ruah’s inventive use of vernacular, to their intense questioning of religion and the social mores of the day, to Billy’s nuanced crisis of faith when he finds himself in the hands of con artists who mock Native American beliefs while rendering them beautiful, Meehl’s engagement with Twain is flawless in all of its layers and facets. Billy’s discovery that Ruah is gay produces the same inner conflicts that Huck faces as he tries to figure out what to do about Jim, and, echoing the controversy that plagues Huckleberry Finn to this day, this remake fearlessly tackles the contemporary prejudices that surround homosexuality, particularly in professional baseball and fundamentalist Christianity. Like Huck with his conflicted views on slavery, Billy never actually changes his view on homosexuality as a sin--his early training is too strong for that--but also like Huck, he decides that he is willing to brave hell to help his friend, and the tortured path toward Ruah’s ultimate freedom is what Tom Sawyer would call an adventure in “the regular way,” full of danger, violence, and excitement. Clearly, the book stands on its own merits as an exploration of one boy’s quest to understand the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions of his faith, his family, and his friendships, but it will also make young people better readers of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by helping them see the ironies and contradictions Twain explored in that book in comparison with present-day contexts.


Karen Coats, Reviewer

 


You Don't Know about Me cover

Cover image from You Don't Know about Me ©2011.  Used by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers.


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This page was last updated on June 1, 2011.