Olshan's creative prose shines in Chloe's sharp, intimate, funny narrative, which is filled with vivid observations, philosophical musings, and insights into the world and people around her. Teens who have read Twain's book will appreciate Olshan's direct references and parallels; those who haven't will like the action and the heroine's resourcefulness. The book's satire and cynicism may create controversy and strike some readers as harsh, but the novel effectively raises awareness of contemporary social concerns, and, like the classic, is certain to invite both thought and discussion.
Finnby Matthew Olshan
Imagine a modern-day retelling of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a teenage girl and a very pregnant young Mexican as the main characters. That’s the gist of Matthew Olshan’s brilliant literary debut, Finn: A Novel. The book’s narrator is Chloe Wilder, a quiet girl, part tomboy, part survivor./i>/i>
Imagine a modern-day retelling of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a teenage girl and a very pregnant young Mexican as the main characters. That’s the gist of Matthew Olshan’s brilliant literary debut, Finn: A Novel. The book’s narrator is Chloe Wilder, a quiet girl, part tomboy, part survivor. Rescued from a murderous life with her mother, Chloe lives with her grandparents in the cocoon of a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. For the first time in her life, things are steady, safe—and stifling. Enter Silvia Morales, the grandparents' maid. Silvia is an illegal immigrant, but that’s not her only secret: She’s also pregnant, a transgression that gets her kicked out of the house. Not long after, Chloe is torn from her quiet life too, and forced to live on the run. While Finn is about Chloe and Silvia’s comic mishaps—and their brushes with real danger—on the road, it’s also a dark portrait of modern America, where smug suburbanites live minutes away from the wilderness of inner cities, and once-mighty rivers meander under superhighways.
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"Angry angry angry, is what you are," they tell me, but I think I'm less angry than quiet, the kind of quiet that makes people nervous because they can't tell what you're thinking, and most of them assume the worst. I do get angry sometimes, but who doesn't? There's strength in anger, which goes against what school counselors will tell you.
Since I've been living with my grandparents, I'm a lot less angry, but I'm still pretty quiet. My grandparents go on and on about how lovely I am-which I'm not-and how bright-which I'm definitely not. They give me an allowance, which is something new, and nice clothes. Sometimes, when they're showing me off to their wrinkly friends, I feel like saying, "She pees when you give her a bottle!" like those talking dolls they gave me when I first came to live with them, before they understood I was way past dolls.
Still, I like how quiet their house is. I like that there are always clean sheets, even if they do smell like mothballs. Everything in my grandparents' house smells like mothballs, even them sometimes, but it's not a terrible smell. At least it smells like someone's trying. And there are times, late at night, when the smell of the mothballs and the clean sheets and the glow of the stupid little nightlight they insist I need and the cicadas singing outside -when all of it together makes me feel like I'm in a cocoon, like I could become something very nice.
I'll fall asleep with those thoughts sometimes, and even if I haven't had the nightmares, in the morning I'll be lashed down by the sheets. It's the way my grandmother tucks them in. They twist around your ankles like ropes. Come morning, I'll try to hide the fact that I'm in one of my moods, but by now my grandparents know better. When I plop down at the kitchen table, they'll give each other the look that says, "Watch out." They won't bother being cheerful. My grandfather will say, "Another bad night." He's right just to say it and not to ask it, because those mornings, I can barely keep my eyes open, much less answer questions.
They used to try to force me to talk about "it," whatever "it" was. But forcing someone to talk is like forcing them to eat: you may have to break their jaw to do it, and the whole thing can land you in a hospital.
They've been sending me to a girls school called Field, which is supposed to be different from other schools in that you go on a lot of field trips. At first, I liked it. The teachers weren't always making me empty my pockets, and I could go to the bathroom without an act of Congress. My main teacher, Ms. Bellows, was extra nice to me, and not in a condescending way. She was the only one who bothered to call me "Chlo," the way I like, and not "Chloe," with two syllables and the ugly "ee" sound at the end, which is my actual name. The rest of the teachers insisted on the whole ugly thing.
Ms. Bellows understood the kind of nice that being nice is supposed to be about. Most of the other teachers only knew about the kind of nice where you've heard a lot of bad stories about someone and think you have to be their "special buddy." One of the teachers at Field, Mr. Lynch, tried way too hard to be my special buddy, always coming up to me, even when I was with a crowd. It was completely inappropriate. He'd say things like, "Hey, girlfriend!" or "Like those shoes!" It's not impossible that my shoes were nice, or that Mr. Lynch could have genuinely liked them, but the time to compliment them is definitely not when I'm trying to make new friends. Nothing scares away potential friends like a teacher who's complimenting you all the time. It's suspicious.
Mr. Lynch was getting out of hand, so I decided to do something about it. A golden opportunity came one day when he was showing me pictures of his family-that's how much he wanted me to feel like his special pal!- and I saw that his wife was Mexican and very young. She was okay-looking, in that stubby way. You know: too much make-up, not a lot of neck. I don't have anything against Mexicans in general, although a lot of people around here do, but I wanted to get Mr. Lynch off my back, so I started making some seemingly harmless comments about his wife. Such as: wasn't she exotic looking, how long had they been married, etc. Mr. Lynch said that he and Mrs. Lynch were practically newlyweds in that they were about to celebrate their second anniversary. As soon as I heard that, I had my in. Mr. Lynch is not what you would call a young man, although the fact that he's fat makes his face look pretty young. Unless I'm utterly wrong, he's forty. A man his age should have been celebrating at least his tenth anniversary, if not more.
I congratulated him anyway. I told him I thought that two years of marriage was a fan-tas-tic achievement. It wasn't hard to lie to him. Mr. Lynch is the kind of person who sops up compliments, probably because he doesn't feel he really deserves them.
Then, when I was sure he was feeling like my special buddy, I told him-not in a mean way, just as a sort of casual observation-that I was surprised Mrs. Lynch hadn't divorced him yet. Mr. Lynch was a little shocked by that. He asked me why I would say such a thing. I said it was common knowledge that Mexican women married American men to become citizens, and then divorced them later because they find American men fat and not very accomplished lovers.
Mr. Lynch was deeply offended, although I wasn't sure whether it was more what I said about his being unaccomplished or what I said about his being fat. Of course it was both, but I take a sort of clinical interest in insults. I like to know exactly what works, and how well.
Mr. Lynch put his pictures away and got a little pompous, which didn't surprise me. He said, "I assure you that's not the case in our situation." When I heard him use the word "situation," I knew I had struck a nerve, because no one uses a word like "situation" unless they're trying to hide something.
Mr. Lynch was a lot less friendly after that, which suited me fine, because I was trying to be friends with an interesting girl called Marian Williams, who absolutely hated him. She claimed it was an old grudge, but beyond that, Marian was very secretive about her hatred for Mr. Lynch. At first, she would only say that once upon a time Mr. Lynch had betrayed a sacred trust. Marian's always using phrases like "betrayed a sacred trust," which sound ridiculous when I say them, but which somehow sound normal coming from her.
Marian's not very popular. She's one of those people who doesn't care at all what other people think. Unlike me. Personally, I can't not care what other people think, no matter how hard I try, but Marian really doesn't, and I mean really. Half the time she's in her own little world, so she barely notices that other people even exist.
Marian reads a lot. Too much, judging from the way she lives life in terms of books. For instance, the business with Mr. Lynch. I finally got it out of her that the "sacred trust" Mr. Lynch betrayed was that he had voted, along with several other teachers at Field, to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the summer reading list. Apparently, there's a lot of offensive language in the book, and it's racist. Marian almost took off my head when I mentioned that. She said that only people who hadn't read the book at all-at least not the way Mark Twain intended it- could call it "racist." I tried to point out that no one really knows how Mark Twain intended it, and we weren't ever likely to, since he was dead, but that's just the kind of argument you can't win with Marian, because suddenly, instead of talking about Mark Twain, you're talking about Genghis Kahn or the Holocaust, and how can you argue with that?
Anyway, after Mr. Lynch voted the way he did about Huckleberry Finn, Marian made a big show of avoiding him in the hallways, flattening herself against the lockers when he walked by, making the sign of the cross behind his back. She was like a bad vampire movie. Once, after a big snowstorm, she spent half an hour in the parking lot carving some crazy footprints in the snow by his car. It was classic Marian. She said she was sculpting the footprints of Huck Finn's murderous father. "In the book, the left boot heel had a cross in it," she said. "To ward off the devil." She's a real stickler for accuracy.
Mr. Lynch was supposed to recognize the footprints and interpret them as a threat. When I asked, "What kind of threat?" Marian rolled her eyes at me, the way she does whenever she thinks someone's being hopelessly thick, which in my case is fairly often. "The Vengeful Cry of the Oppressed," she said. "Duh!" Carving the footprints was a lot harder than she originally thought, because it's not exactly easy to avoid leaving your own footprints in the snow, not to mention the occasional handprint when you lose your balance. In the end, it looked to me as if a big hairy dog had jumped out of Mr. Lynch's car and rolled around, but Marian was satisfied that the Oppressor was in for a real scare. I was glad to hear that because, by then, I thought I was going to chip a tooth from shivering so hard.
We watched Mr. Lynch get into his car that afternoon, and, in fact, he did pause for a while after he squeezed himself behind the wheel, but I had seen him do that before. He's just extremely out of shape and he fiddles with the radio for a minute to catch his breath before he straps on his seatbelt, because reaching over his shoulder is a big workout for him. But in Marian's mind, Mr. Lynch wasn't catching his breath at all. "He's contemplating the Harvest of his Cowardice!" she said.
The harvest of his cowardice? I mean, please.
Meet the Author
Matthew Olshan was educated at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Oxford Universities. He is a freelance writer and producer. A native of Washington, D.C., he lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife and daughter. Finn: a Novel is his first published work of fiction.
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After living largely unsupervised with her temperamental mother, Chloe Wilder feels as if she found paradise when she moves into the home of her grandparents. Though they constantly misinterpret Chloe¿s natural reticence and quietness for anger, her grandparents provide her material things, an allowance, and loving encouragement. On the other hand when the kind Mexican maid Sylvia begins to show her pregnancy, they toss her out, but not before checking to see if anything was stolen. Everything changes when ¿Soul Patch¿ abducts Chloe. It turns out that he is her mother¿s new husband because not long afterward, her mother¿s cursing as usual enters the dilapidated, filthy home. They keep Chloe locked away, but she manages to escape with her only hope to survive the mean streets being Sylvia. FINN: A NOVEL like its titled predecessor can be read on varying levels. It is an exciting young adult adventure tale with major social issues turning it into a thought-provoking adult-tale. Chloe with Sylvia as her guide falls from the elite radar screen into a lower class maelstrom where she learns much about class society in America from her experiences on the street. Matthew Olsham accomplishes quite a task blending social commentary that questions who really has ¿class¿ into an interesting adventure that never preaches only entertains. Harriet Klausner