In an undoubtedly futile effort to instill a love of reading in the boarders we read to them every night. We are not slavishly devoted to the canon, so have read a Calvin and Hobbes anthology… more than once. Currently the eldest and I are enjoying the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, but on a recent evening we finished one book before we had checked out the next. We were stranded, and bitching commenced.
I suggested The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. To Isaac the dialect may as well have been a different language: “I don’t think I really know what’s going on.” We eventually abandoned book.
I had not read the book in decades and realized that a few things jumped out that never would have remained obscure when I was younger. The novel opens on Aunt Polly trying to find Tom. She calls out “You Tom!” several times to no avail. Then “[s]he went to the open door and stood in it and looked out among the tomato vines and "jimpson" weeds that constituted the garden. No Tom.”
This line slipped past me without a thought, but when I read it the other night it jumped off the page. A garden says a lot about a person. The novel takes place in the latter half of the nineteenth century a good bit south of the Mason-Dixon line; it’s hardly surprising that Aunt Polly had a garden. I’d suspect that nearly everyone had a kitchen garden. But Aunt Polly’s garden comprises “tomato vines and ‘jimpson’ weeds.”
This garden would hardly feed the family, but Polly still planted it. I suspect she felt that planting a garden was something that one just did, like disciplining a rascally nephew. Working in the garden probably didn’t get top billing each day so now the garden has plenty of Jimsonweed. This is not a small weed that can be dispatched with a simple yank. It can grow to 5 feet high and spread nearly as much. Having a few jimsonweed plants in your garden suggests not just a busy week, but a garden that has been ignored. I suggest that Twain’s use of this line tells his contemporary reader much about Aunt Polly.
Today’s reader might miss this as the context is gone for most of us. For me, there happens to be a rather fine Jimsonweed specimen growing in a garden shared between me and my neighbor. I choose to believe it’s on her side though I haven’t done any careful surveying.
I don’t really like pulling Jimsonweed, or Datura stramonium, because it’s awfully poisonous -- even topically. It has nervous system effects that can lead to serious hallucinations, but also a racing heart and amnesia. The symptoms can last for weeks. There are many poisonings every year though most of these are from recreational users who bite off more than they can chew, so to speak.
So does the Jimsonweed in my flower garden say as much about me as it does Aunt Polly? No. She’s lazy, I’m respecting my neighbor’s property rights.