Joe Helgerson is the author the very entertaining series of stories featuring Sheriff Huck Finn set in turn-of-the-century Marquis, Iowa—continued in our May issue with “The Case of Captain Nemo’s Half Brother.” He has also written two clever YA books, Horns & Wrinkles (2006) and Crows & Cards (2009), both published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. The latter was named a Smithsonian Notable Book. The Sheriff Huck stories, which he talks about here, go back to June 2002, but he published two stories with us in 1983, beginning with “Eighty-Seven Miles of Smoke and Mist” (April 1983).
I’ve always had a soft spot for crackpot theories, especially when they’re my own. One of my favorites contends that there’s not one but two Mississippi Rivers that drain North America. One’s measured in miles, the other in pages. One carries away our topsoil, the other our imagination. The first starts in Lake Itasca, the second in Samuel Clemens’s inkpot. Having grown up in a small town on the Mississippi myself, it was probably inevitable that these two rivers would eventually mingle in my writing.
I wish I could say that my love of Mark Twain’s work dates back to my childhood, but that would a lie, and we all know how fiction writers hate those. So I’ll give it to you straight: I’ve only a faint memory of my parents reading Tom Sawyer to me as a child, and I’m afraid it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Tom just had too many answers for my taste. I’ve always leaned toward people who were bigger on questions than answers, people like Huck. But it wasn’t until college that I bumped into Huck skulking around the English department’s halls and really got hooked on Twain’s work. What attracted me to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were the voices, which I’d heard echoes of growing up in my hometown, where old timers hung out at my dad’s gas station and spit tobacco juice on the drive while grumbling about the government fencing in the river with dams. Twain’s humor roped me in too. And finally there were the descriptions of the river, the wet one, which amplified my own memories of the sandbars, fogbanks, and large boats prowling by in the night. All that hit the spot, and to this day I keep several copies of Huck’s adventures lying around my workroom, close at hand in case I need to dip my toe in something wet real quick.
As I read and re-read Huck’s adventures over the years I began to wonder what other people and stories might be found along Twain’s Mississippi. At some point the question of what Huck might have been like as an adult, after he’d lit out for the territories, started orbiting around inside my head. Still, Huck was part of Mr. Twain’s family, not mine, so I didn’t feel quite right about filching him outright and creating the further adventures of Huck Finn. That’s when I came up with the notion of having a fictional character doing the heavy lifting for me. Thus was born Humfredo Mulendorfor, my hero, who thought Huck’s name might just be glamorous enough to get him elected sheriff of a one-horse town. One of the major virtues of the second Mississippi river, the inky one, is that it allows people traveling along it to slip in and out of other people’s skins. That’s what Humfredo was all about.
My Sheriff Huck stories are set around the year 1904 because I wrote the first one for AHMM in 2002, and the span of 100 years between the past and present passed the Goldilocks test. It seemed just right. A hundred years ago wasn’t so far back that the world was completely different from today, but it was far enough removed that life was different enough to give pause and maybe make us wonder how we’ve gotten to where we are today. Also, Mr. Twain was still alive at that time, which seemed fitting.
I chose the fictional town of Marquis, Iowa as my setting for a couple of reasons. First because Samuel Clemens lived along that stretch of river for a couple of years as a young man, when he worked for his older brother Orion in Keokuk, Iowa at the Ben Franklin Book and job printing office. He earned $5 a week. I’ve often wondered if he was over paid.
I also chose that part of the river because I’ve been partial to Iowa and Iowans ever since I first moved away from home to attend school in Des Moines. One of my roommates at that time hailed from Keokuk. He was as practical, forthright, and idiosyncratic a fellow as I’ve ever met. He made a powerful impression on me, particularly when he kept wondering what his Wheaties would taste like with beer instead of milk. I was immediately drawn to someone like that, someone with questions, not answers. To his credit, he eventually got around to answering his question too, as one hung-over morning he poured a cold can of beer over his cereal. No slacker, he gagged most of it down too. Theory wasn’t enough for that man. He needed empirical knowledge. Ah, the college years.
And by the way, Keokuk is a lovely town to visit, full of strange and unexpected lore. I passed through there with my family a couple of years back and didn’t have any trouble imagining young Sam Clemens blowing his weekly salary on cigars.
As to how Captain Nemo’s half brother got involved in all this—let’s just say that Mark Twain’s inkpot wasn’t the only one known to overfloweth. Jules Verne’s put out quite a stream too, especially for someone like me, who’s always enjoyed Science Fiction. In the end, it seemed kind of natural that Captain Nemo’s half brother would steer the Nautilus up the inky Mississippi the first chance he got. I’ve heard on good authority that he met his match in Sheriff Huck