You’ll find the town of Hannibal in eastern Missouri, just north of Mexico and Louisiana, Missouri. For our summer road trip we drove from Winnipeg to Williamsburg, Virginia. On our way back we decided to stop in Hannibal, hometown to Mark Twain (and the unsinkable Molly Brown). Just outside of town we found Mark Twain Cave, hideout of Jesse James and the very cave where Twain dropped Tom and Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.It was exciting to walk where Twain once explored. I’m always curious about where others get their inspiration and I too found the cave inspiring–three and a half miles of twisting and turning passages to explore and get lost in. The tour guide regaled us with stories–this is where Becky ran into the chandelier of bats, this is where Tom shared the wedding cake with Becky, this is where they found Injun Joe dead.
And then she came to a very interesting story. A cut-throat, sinister, murder in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe was a real guy. Someone Twain knew well. It’s no secret that writers draw characters for their books from the people around them. I’ve always felt a little bit bad about this. I’m careful to give them a different name, and join traits from a couple different people, so no one can say this is Bob or this is Sally. I wouldn’t want to make anyone feel bad. Twain, however, did not have the same reservations.
Joe, the tour guide reported, was actually a very nice man. He was an ophan who had survived getting scalped and a case of small pox. And he had the scars to bear witness of both. Children in town teased him and would run away from him on the street. After Tom Sawyer gained popularity Joe approached Twain and ask him why he made him into a villain. Twain informed Joe that he was the ugliest man he’d ever seen, so he made the perfect villain. This didn’t make Joe feel any better, so Twain told Joe to get back at him by outliving him. Twain died at age 75, while Joe lived to a ripe 102 and died from eating a bad batch of pickled pigs feet.
And now you have the rest of the story.
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Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades, as well as short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.