By BRENDA REES
MOUNT WASHINGTON — An updated version of Mark Twain’s classic tale Huckleberry Finn set in contemporary Los Angeles will hit bookstores this weekend. It’s the brainchild of Mount Washington author Tim DeRoche, who partnered with Highland Park artist Daniel Gonzalez to create an homage to the beloved albeit controversial book while exploring current issues like immigration, race and religion.
A financial consultant and filmmaker originally from Milwaukee, DeRoche came up with the idea a few years ago while kayaking down the Los Angeles River.
“I read Huck Finn about every year,” says DeRoche, who graduated from Pomona College with a degree in English Literature. While traversing the Glendale Narrows, the concept hit him: What if Huck Finn was alive today? Who would escape with him on a raft down the Los Angeles River? The result is The Ballad of Huck & Miguel, which will be published on the 133rd anniversary of Twain’s original.
DeRoche met Gonzalez through a mutual friend and the two clicked artistically; DeRoche credits Gonzalez for helping flesh out the character of Miguel, a young immigrant from Mexico who, like Jim the household slave in Twain’s original story, is on the run from the law.
“I was so fortunate to have worked with Daniel; his work is so beautiful,” says DeRoche about the 40 linocuts that accompany the text. While Huck remains the wide-eyed kid from Missouri, Miguel is an amalgamation of many people. Born in Boyle Heights just blocks from the Los Angeles River, Gonzalez’ family is originally from a small town of El Teul, Zacatecas, Mexico.
“Miguel is the hero of this story,” says DeRoche. “He teaches Huck and loyalty and love and their friendship really is the core of the emotional story.”
As part of his research about the river, DeRoche hiked and biked the entire length of the waterway and set out plot points along certain locations.
“The River is a wilder place than you would think from just driving over it on the freeway,” he says. “There are herons hiding in the bushes, swallows flying overhead, coyotes and bobcats roaming the banks.”
When Gonzalez told him about Leo Limon’s River Cats – whimsical feline imagery created on river storm drain covers – DeRoche changed the manuscript to include these iconic symbols of the river.
When writing the story, DeRoche made a conscious effort to use as “close to Huck’s original voice as possible. I had such a fun time with that character.”
The story starts with Huck’s introduction:“This here is the full true story of how I left St. Petersburg for California and went on the run from the ’thorities with a real live illegal Mexigrant. There might be a few stretchers along the way, but I’ll work ’em in nice and proper, so as you won’t notice too much.”
So often today, Huckleberry Finn is a routinely banned book, noted DeRoche. Just recently, a school district in Duluth, Minnesota banned the book because the racial slurs “make many students feel uncomfortable.”
“You have to remember that when it was published in 1884 it was banned,” explains DeRoche pointing to the fact that many objected to the vernacular use of language, especially coming from the mouth of a child.
“Twain used the language of the folks and many consider this book the first real piece of American literature. At its heart, it is a humane story that uses irony to get the message across.”
In the end, DeRoche hopes that Angeleno readers will discover a new appreciation and love for the Los Angeles River and see immigration from the human point of view. The read also may inspire a revisiting of the original Huckleberry Finn.
“Huck, even though he is abused, is resilient and incredibly observant,” he says. “The book is hilarious, wondrous and a joy to read.”
A book launch party The Ballad of Huck and Miguel, which is available at local bookstores and Amazon, will be held at The Last Bookstore in DTLA at 7 pm on Feb 18
Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock
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