A friend who has a daughter working with Friends of the LA River took a few of us on an LA River tour for our birthdays. It was odd to see the sections of the river that have a soil, rather than a concrete, bottom. Though narrow and contained by steeply sloping concrete walls, this section of the river provides a much-needed respite from the surrounding city. As the adjacent railroad tracks and their noisy trains turned away from the river, we saw more and more wildlife: geese, mallard ducks, coots, a blue heron, birds of prey. Their songs and sounds were a welcome change.
As we walked, we saw children of various ages, apparently YMCA summer camp participants, enjoying the river. Older children, about fifth grade, were on the river, exploring. Younger ones, about second grade, were doing a science lesson at the LA River Park. They each had a cup of river water and were noting the visible life—mostly tiny snails—that lived there.
How strange that I didn’t even know the location of this natural space in the city. I had only thought to explore it because I had seen articles about it in the LA Times. This fact—that the river exists without many people knowing about it—is one of the premises of the novel “The Ballad of Huck and Miguel.” If you are a fan of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” you’ll have a lot of fun reading this book. If you are also familiar with the LA River, you’ll probably give this novel a five-star review.
The set up here is similar to Twain’s novel: Huck is living with his racist, drunken, abusive father and hopes to escape. And many of the same characters appear on this journey although they have different personalities and sometimes different purposes. For example, the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson are now Ms. Douglas and Ms. Watson—and rather than good cop/bad cop (with Miss Watson being the slave owner of Jim and a deeply, hypocritically pious woman)—they are a married lesbian couple (thespians, Huck thinks, mixing up words as he does in the original, to humorous effect). Both are kind guardians to Huck.
Characters who have the same purpose now use modern schemes to employ them. So the Duke is a rapscallion here, but his schemes to dupe and steal are related to medical fraud rather than bilking girls out of their inheritance.
In another updating, Huck finds himself on the run with a ‘Mexigrant’ (undocumented Mexican immigrant)—Miguel—on the LA River.
Pap isn’t as easy to get rid of in this tale, so he provides a lot of action. In places he is directly quoted from the original to great effect, especially in his racist rants about the government, and his fury that Huck is getting an education and is too high and mighty.
It’s a lot of fun to see how DeRoche has stayed true to the spirit of Huck with his update. Another joy are the numerous linocuts by Daniel Gonzalez that illustrate the story (the cover illustration is one example with color added). If you’re a Huck fan, you really can’t go wrong with this one.