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Reviews in American History 33.2 (2005) 211-216

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Cry Me a River:

The Challenges of Growing Up in America

Steven Mintz. Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 480 pp. Notes and index. $29.95.

"If I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book," says the hero at the end of Mark Twains's most lasting novel, "I wouldn't a tackled it."1 Steven Mintz may well have thought the same thing about halfway through writing his survey of the history of American children; this is a thorny subject requiring at least a passing knowledge of a number of historical fields. It also resists a straightforward chronological narrative, for changes in the lives of children and youth are gradual and overlapping. But readers of this fine book will be grateful that Mintz took on this particular challenge, for at its best, Huck's Raft reorients United States history, with children and youth at the center of American life rather than the periphery.

Mintz's choice of title is extraordinarily evocative. (The colorized cover photograph of a young Charles Lindbergh rafting on the Mississippi half a century after Huck's fictional journey provides its own delicious set of metaphorical possibilities.) The stories of the two most famous boys in American literature suggest conflicting images of childhood. The Disney version, of course, focuses on Tom and features the carefree, good-hearted stereotypes represented in Mintz's descriptions of the child-centered society that middle-class Americans designed in the middle of the nineteenth century and renewed in the middle of the twentieth century. When the focus shifts to Huck, however, more sinister versions of childhood appear—closer to David Lynch than to Disney. Whenever Huck leaves the relative safety of the raft, an abusive father, kidnappers, feuding southern aristocrats, and suffocating aunts threaten his life and his freedom, and Mintz finds flesh and blood equivalents for all of them. The stories of Huck and Tom have become mythic, and Mintz aims "to strip away the myths, misconceptions, and nostalgia" that often lead contemporary Americans to despair about youth. As Mintz argues, "There has never been a time when the overwhelming majority of American children were well cared for and their experiences idyllic. Nor has childhood ever been an age of innocence, at least not for most children" (p. vii). [End Page 211]

This bleak passage actually belies the book's nuanced and sometimes optimistic tone. Mintz believes that the history of childhood offers something to present-day policy makers and parents. To that end, Mintz sets out several "themes and patterns" (one is tempted, of course, to call them currents!). The first and, perhaps, most important, is that "childhood is not an unchanging biological stage of life," but "a social and cultural construct that has changed radically over time" (p. viii). Perhaps the strongest parts of the book are Mintz's discussions of the competing notions of what childhood should be; he quite effectively shows how evolving religious, economic, and scientific beliefs and knowledge shaped childhood over the centuries. His second major theme is the diversity of childhood; American children and youth have experienced many different childhoods, and although Mintz incorporates race, ethnicity, and gender into his arguments, he stresses that "social class is the most significant determinant of children's well-being" (p. ix). A third theme examines the shifting relationships between parents and children, which leads directly to the fourth, and most striking theme: "the pattern of recurrent moral panics over children's well-being," from the anguish over their children's spiritual future that helped spark the Puritan migration of the 1620s to the more recent "culture wars" over family values (p. ix). Mintz successfully integrates these themes into a narrative of American childhoods; the following review will highlight the book's considerable strengths and offer only a few caveats.

Huck's adventures are told, of course, by Huck himself, a narrative technique that dominates coming of age stories to...


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