The following review appeared 11 April 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Kim Martin Long <email@example.com>
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Although not technically a book review, this brief article reviews a series of tapes produced by Audio Partners. This audio version captures the authoritative text of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (U of California Press), totally unabridged, and it includes seven cassettes, over eleven hours of audio performance. Narrated by experienced actor Patrick Fraley, this version of Twain's masterpiece comes alive with careful oral interpretation, a rich tapestry of voices, and appropriate (but unobtrusive) musical clips.
The first tape begins at the beginning, with Twain's "Notice" and "Explanatory," then it launches without fanfare into Huck's story. Fraley's Huck takes a few minutes to grow on you; the voice is at first a little grating on the ears. He sounds a little like a cross between the humorous writer David Sederis, who has read much of his work on National Public Radio, and young Ron Howard as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. I don't mean to be critical of Fraley's work as Huck; he captures many of Huck's changes in tone, such as when he talks about the Widow's hypocrisy, his and Jim's idyllic life on the raft, or his escapades with Tom at the beginning and at the end of the novel. I am willing to forgive some very minor inconsistencies in the dialect (sometimes -ing, sometimes -in'; or sometimes long "i," sometimes "ah") because of Fraley's overall believability with the voice.
Huck's voice, in fact, seems to settle in as the tapes continue. He sounds more comfortable, less forcedly "hick" as the story progresses. (To make sure that it wasn't just my ears, I tried listening to later and earlier tapes one after the other to compare.) It's the other voices, however, in the novel that make this tape series worth the investment. Jim is believable without being overly dialect-laden; Pap is perfect as the excitable bigot; Miss Judith Loftis sounds as she should, as an observant woman who might live on the Mississippi's banks; the raftsmen, "Child of Calamity" and company, are a real treat; and the Duke and the King's voices communicate the confidence men's characters, even in their own abilities to "do" different voices. Fraley's facility with changing back and forth between voices in conversation brings the dialogue in the novel to life.
Between chapters, Ken Deifik's short musical licks create transition and texture to the narration. Mostly harmonica, but sometimes piano, the selections are brief so as not to interrupt the motion of the story. I appreciate that the producers, Ronald Feinberg and Fraley, resisted the temptation to include sound effects or other audio intrusions. The result is a clean but auditorily rich recording of the novel.
I imagine that some people might buy this tape series as they would any "book on tape," people who have not read Twain's tale. Others might purchase it for use in teaching, either in high school or in college classrooms. In that case, however, it would have been extremely helpful for the publishers to have included a guide in the tapes that indicates where each tape begins and ends. It is unlikely that a teacher would play all eleven hours of tape. It would have been a major advantage to have a way to focus in on a specific passage (Huck and Jim's conversation about Solomon and speaking French, or the Duke and the King's renditions of Shakespeare).
The tape series would make an important contribution to a high school library's collection of media. Many students with learning disabilities would certainly benefit from listening to this taped version of Twain's book, either as a substitute or as a supplementary aid.
The cost of the tapes is very reasonable at $29.95, although one can acquire less expensive versions with fewer cassettes. Other readings are available (by Ed Begley, Jr. [Harper Audio, 1998]; Dick Hill [Brilliance, 1992]; and an abridged version by Garrison Keillor [HighBridge, 1996]. However, this affordable, well-done rendition may become the definitive oral version of the day. I'm not sure if Clemens himself could have read all his characters' "shadings" with as much color and credibility.