New York Times Book Review:
Life After the Mississippi
By RICH COHEN
Published: May 6, 2010
What if your child wrote a book about your life? How would the story of your days read when channeled through those shrewd, judgmental eyes? Would you seem like God when God walked in the garden, or would you seem like Papa Doc, the tyrant, the crafter of rules and breaker of treaties?
This is what happened to Mark Twain. His 13-year-old daughter, Susy, in secret, chronicled his life. From her notes, the source of a great new book — “The Extraordinary Mark Twain” — you can conclude either that he was the best father who ever lived, or that he was simply favored by his era, that time before muckraking memoirs and celebrity-daughter tell-alls. Or perhaps a bit of both.
Written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, “The Extraordinary Mark Twain” began with one of those tantalizing tidbits writers sometimes stumble across. Kerley, whose previous works include “What to Do About Alice?” and “Walt Whitman: Words for America,” happened to spot a footnote about a “biography” that Susy, Twain’s eldest daughter, had written. “I was immediately intrigued,” Kerley writes in an author’s note. “Having been the parent of a 13-year-old girl myself, I know they tend to call it like they see it.”
Kerley has used Susy’s text, from a notebook filled with the neat cursive of the day, to construct a kind of dual biography, the story of Twain and the story of Susy telling the story of Twain. Every few pages, Kerley includes samples of the journal, minibooks stapled to the spine: “His favorite game is billiards,” Susy writes, “and when he is tired . . . he stays up all night and plays. . . . It seems to rest his head.”
Twain is the great hero of American literature, the father of us all, the author of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but also the world traveler and story-spinner. Kerley gives us a quick sketch of the boy who became the artist, the early years in Hannibal, Mo., the life of the steamboat pilot, the life of the newspaperman and the life of the young author. It’s a story told also in Fotheringham’s pictures, which suggest works of American folk art — the side-wheelers crowding the harbor, the green hills above the river town, the author laughing as he reads his own book.
But more than the public man, what you get here is the husband and father, the private figure named Samuel Clemens. The authors — by the end, Barbara Kerley and Susy Clemens seem like co-authors of this book — tell you what you want to know about Twain: He paced the floor between courses at meal time; he threw his shirts out the window; he wrote all day, breakfast till dinner, filling 50 pages at a pop; he talked to the cat; he hid from fans but now and then got stuck when (Susy quoting Twain) “mentally dead people brought their corpses with them for a long visit.”
Susy’s physical description of her father fills me with joy, as it’s just the way a man wants to be seen by his progeny: “He has beautiful curly gray hair, not any too thick, or any too long, just right; a roman nose, which greatly improves the beauty of his features, kind blue eyes, and a small mustache. . . . In short he is an extrodinarily fine-looking man. All his features are perfect exept that he hasn’t extrodinary teeth.”
Other than that last part, I mean.
Though Susy began writing in secret, Twain soon discovered what she was up to. “After that,” Kerley writes, “Papa sometimes made pronouncements about himself at the breakfast table just to help his biographer along.” Years later, Twain published parts of Susy’s diary in The North American Review, and included passages of it in his own autobiography. He said it was the best thing ever written about him.
Twain turned morose at the end. He believed the worst about the human anthill and knew just where we were all going, which, as Huck says, was to “the bad place” — a mood hinted at in this book, whose end brings double heartbreak. The first comes in the way Susy winds up her book on Twain, on a family trip to Iowa in 1886: “We have arrived in Keokuk after a very pleasant — ” And that’s it. Leaving off in mid-sentence like this probably means she was called away for dinner, or to see some spectacle, but suggests a greater going away, that shift known to all parents, that moment when Susy discovered a subject beyond her father. One afternoon, in Iowa, Susy Clemens was done writing about Mark Twain.
The second heartbreak comes in the last lines of the book, when Kerley tells us that Susy died from spinal meningitis in 1896, when she was 24. It was this tragedy that darkened Twain’s later years. “I did not know that she could go away and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind,” he wrote in a letter.
Kerley has captured all of this in a few pages: the young man with everything before him, the father with the love of his children and the old man bereft. It is a melancholy hybrid, a rope spun from the strands left behind by Sam Clemens and his daughter. Susy would love it, by the way. You can almost see her reading the book to her father in Hartford, as the Connecticut River calls them to greater adventures.
Rich Cohen is the author of “Sweet and Low” and other books. He lives one town over from Redding, Conn., where Twain spent his last years.
Kerley and Fotheringham (What to Do About Alice?) pair up again to offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of another famous family. Wanting to present a portrait of her papa beyond that of just humorist and author, Mark Twain’s 13-year-old daughter Susy spent a year chronicling her observations and reflections. While her entire work was published in 1985 (Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain), Kerley contextualizes the teenager’s admiring musings with vivid familial backdrops. So when Kerley notes that Twain’s wife often would “clean up any questionable passages” in his writing, Susy’s biography states that this meant “some delightfully dreadful part must be scratched out.” Minibooklets titled “Journal” appear in the fold of many spreads, containing excerpts from Susy’s notebook (some may find the flowery typeface of the inserts hard to read). Adding dynamic flair to the limited palettes of each digitally created scene are curlicues representing words, which emanate wildly from pen tips, pages, and mouths. Author notes about Susy and her father, a time line of Twain’s life, and tips for writing an “extraordinary biography” complete this accessible and inventive vision of an American legend. Ages 7–11. (Jan.)
School Library Journal:
Gr 3-6–Kerley and Fotheringham again craft a masterfully perceptive and largely visual biography, this time about the iconic 19th-century American writer. In pursuit of truth, Susy Clemens, age 13, vows to set the record straight about her beloved (and misunderstood) father and becomes his secret biographer. Kerley uses Susy’s manuscript and snippets of wisdom and mirth from Twain’s copious oeuvre as fodder for her story. The child’s journal entries, reproduced in flowing handwritten, smaller folio inserts, add a dynamic and lovely pacing to the narrative, which includes little-known facts about Twain’s work. The text flawlessly segues into Susy’s carefully recorded, sometimes misspelled, details of his character, intimate life, and work routine during his most prolific years. Digitally enhanced illustrations, colored with a Victorian palette and including dynamic, inventive perspectives, tell volumes about the subject by way of Fotheringham’s technique of drawing lines that represent Twain’s impatience, mirth, smoking habit, love for family and cats, storytelling, pool-playing, and truth-pondering. The opening and closing illustrations of Susy’s writing process are depicted visually–scribbles emerging from pushing her oversize pen, and her metaphorically teasing out her Papa’s mustache, pen in tow. Kerley dedicates an appended, one-page guide to writing biographies to Susy, a biographer who “applied no sandpaper” to her subject. Line-by-line sources of quotes, a time line, and an author’s note on both Papa and Susy are appended. A delightful primer on researching and writing biographies, and a joy to peruse.–Sara Paulson-Yarovoy, American Sign Language and English Lower School PS 347, New York City
From 1885 to ’86, Mark Twain’s 13-year-old daughter Susy Clemens wrote a 130-page biography of her father out of indignation: Her dear Papa was no mere humorist! This large-format picture book from the creators of What to Do About Alice? (2008) contains numerous excerpts from Susy’s sprightly biography/journal, presented throughout as mini-spreads, spelling errors intact. (Twain described his daughter’s spelling as “frequently desperate.”) Kerley’s conversational, quotation-rich narration effectively complements Susy’s insights, and the result is an affectionate portrait of Twain as writer and family man. Twain aficionados will be especially captivated by its fullness, as he’s not revealed as the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until mid-book. Fotheringham’s dynamically composed, digitally created full-bleed illustrations, both inventive and appealing, effectively recall the 19th-century setting, and big, swirling lines reflect the flourishes of an ink pen. A favorite spread shows the grand Connecticut house as a cross-section, with Twain going about his routine in every room, even taking a bath! A heartwarming tribute to both the writing life in general and the well-loved humorist—oops, sorry Susy… “Pholosopher!” (author’s note, how to write a biography, time line, sources) (Picture book/biography. 8-11)