"He was not the Model Boy of the village. He knew the model boy very well though--and loathed him." —Mark Twain, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"
There is no story that conjures up classic boyhood like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain. From Tom’s fence-painting days to his triumphant entry into his own funeral, the story of Tom Sawyer includes every element of adventure, from running away to hunting for buried treasure to getting into scrapes with a murderer. There’s even innocent, boyhood love.
Every boy should feel the freedom of hunting up and down a riverbed, filling pockets full of snail shells while riverboats trawl the Mississippi in the background. But even if you live nowhere near that classic body of water, your boys can still find elements of a Tom Sawyer summer wherever you may be.
If you haven’t read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” with your boys, start there. We listened to the audio version a few years back and loved it. The old timey language and Midwest dialect take some getting used it--I occasionally had to translate what was happening to my kids—but they became captivated. If the actual story is over their heads, we like the Illustrated Classics version, which features simplified language and pictures on ever page. (We often find these versions at thrift stores.)
Once your boys have a grasp of the story, they’re ready to concoct their own summer plan, Tom Sawyer style.
Wade in the water
First, head to the water. In the story, the churning waters of the muddy Mississippi are as alive as many of the characters. They are Tom’s gateway to freedom. The Mississippi was the highway of Tom’s day, and the riverboats were vessels of escape.
Tom and his friends head off down the Mississippi and stake claim on their own island. Boys can find that same sense of adventure on a pond, river, creek, or lake. Teach them how to canoe, kayak, and swim. Supply them with a pile of scrap lumber and let them build a floatable raft. Set them off with a fishing pole, a hook and line, or a net, and see what they come back with. Show them how to hunt for crawdads.
Discover an island
Okay, so it might be hard for boys to find an actual island, but send them out in the neighborhood in search of their own oasis. Every kid needs a secret place, a Terabithia of sorts, far from the prying eyes of adults who might try to civilize and clean it up. Encourage your boys to explore beyond your own backyard. Take them to state parks or campgrounds where they can search the natural world.
Adventure by night
Tom and his buddy Huck Finn are exploring a graveyard by night when they witness a horrifying incident: the murder of Dr. Robinson. This sets up the rest of the story, as Tom has to both witness against and escape the retribution of Injun Joe.
While graverobbing isn’t a pastime we want to encourage with our boys, there is something freeing about being out under an open night sky, and having a midnight adventure. Backyard camping, trampoline camping, midnight hikes with an adult, and owling can all simulate the late-night wanderings of Tom and Huck.
Fall in love…with spelunking
One of the memorable twists in the story is the adventure Tom and Becky Thatcher take into McDougal’s Cav . Tom, in a love-sick swagger, leads Becky through the cave only to get them hopelessly lost. After spending a few harrowing days in the cave, Tom is able to lead them out and the cave is sealed for safety.
If you live near caves, take a summer outing to go caving. The darkness of a cave is a welcome relief from the heat of summer, and there is something empowering about descending into the bowels of the earth. Of course, you can also learn from Tom and Becky’s experience and never venture into a cave without proper equipment and a solid know-how of where you’re going., while paying attention to rules for bat mating season.
Hunt for treasure
After helping Becky out of the cave, Tom and Huck become determined to find the buried treasure they believe Injun Joe has hidden somewhere around town. Huck Finn shadows Injun Joe, trying to nab the gold. After glimpsing Injun Joe in the cave, Tom concludes that the gold is hidden somewhere beyond the sealed-off entrance.
Geo-caching is the greatest form of a modern-day treasure hunt. But so is hunting for natural treasure--shells on a beach, owl pellets in the woods, agates along the shore of a lake. Look for arrowheads and petrified wood or fossils.
Renting a metal detector and hunting through the woods or along a riverbed can bring up all sorts of surprises. Going to a junkyard can be a treasure hunt, or even your local thriftstore. Send boys into the backyard and see what treasures they can find.
In a fulfillment of every boy’s dream, Tom and Huck end up with a coffer full of gold, making the duet of orphans instantly rich. The money is invested for their future and Tom and Huck settle in with their charges, at least for the time being.
Beyond hunting for that elusive gold, allow boys to act out some of their summer money-making schemes. Give them license to set up a lemonade stand, distribute flyers to mow the lawn, or sell vegetables door-to-door. Allow them to run their own garage sale or sell old toys on eBay. Boys love having a little pocket change, and the reward is all the sweeter when they’ve sweated to earn it themselves.
Lastly, of course, you have to complete the summer the way the story begins. Hand your son a paintbrush, a bucket of whitewash, and point him in the direction of the nearest picket fence. Right there, at that line between boyhood and adulthood, is where all adventures begin.