In his latest work of nonfiction, Ron Powers returns to his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, to investigate two senseless killings committed in the span of six weeks by two pairs of disaffected teenagers. Could the violence have been prompted by the social changes taking place in this most American of cities? Hannibal is, after all, the idyllic birthplace of Mark Twain's mischievous-but-moral duo, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. How could the savagery manifested in the killings, Powers wonders, be nourished and countenanced here? The co-author of Flags of Our Fathers inspects the fabled town on several levels (and with a news photographer's eye for detail) in Tom and Huck Don't Live Here Anymore. First, Hannibal is a crime scene with victims and perpetrators to be interviewed and trials to be attended and reported on. Then, there are the town's historical stages to consider: Hannibal as it is today, as it was in the 1950s when Powers was growing up, and its history as a frontier settlement in Twain's youth and as a bustling trade center when he returned many years later an established literary lion.
But Powers is more than a visiting sociologist. He brings with him his own variously shaded memories. While he recalls many sunny moments, he dwells on his emotionally distant father and returns time and again to his ill-fated younger brother, with whom he was never able to form a warm bond. The persisting dark spot in the book is the alteration of the American family as is clearly evident in Hannibal with children being raised in dawn-to-dark daycare centers and parents divorcing and pursuing their own frantic personal agendas.
It should surprise no one that Powers fails to come up with any satisfying answers to his queries about cause and effect. They are simply too cosmic for neat resolution. The value of his book lies in the fact that, by posing these questions, he nudges us toward assessing our own Hannibals and the latter-day Toms and Hucks playing videogames or assembling arsenals in the next room.
Edward Morris writes from Nashville.