What Huckleberry Finn might say about immigration and the LA River

Cover art for
Cover art for "The Ballad of Huck & Miguel"
Daniel Gonzalez/Redtail Press

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"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," first published in the United States in 1885 and considered one of the greatest works of American literature, tells the story of a boy's travels along the Mississippi River and his friendship with a slave named Jim.

More than 130 years later, Mark Twain's classic has been rebooted with a distinctly modern, Southern California flavor with writer Tim DeRoche's new novel, "The Ballad of Huck & Miguel."

DeRoche sets his version along the Los Angeles River. Huck once again has an abusive father, Pap. But this Pap rails against the so-called Mexigrants, who he fears are taking away U.S. jobs. Huck manages to escape his father and finds a new home with two wealthy women who employ an immigrant named Miguel, who is in the country illegally.

Huck and Miguel make their escape along the LA River
Huck and Miguel make their escape along the LA River
Daniel Gonzalez/Redtail Press

An unfortunate twist of fate forces Huck and Miguel to flee and make their escape along the L.A. River, where the threat of danger looms around every bend.

Trailer for "The Ballad of Huck and Miguel"

KPCC's Alex Cohen spoke with DeRoche and illustrator Daniel Gonzalez about the project. 

Interview Highlights

Daniel Gonzalez/Redtail Press

Huck and Miguel emerge from a tunnel along the LA River.

This book comes out at a time when immigration is one of the most hotly debated issues in America. What do you hope readers will take away from this book on that front?

DeRoche: Very early on in this project, I was talking to Twain scholar Laura Trombley, who told me the original "Huck Finn" is not about slavery, it's not about race. This is a story about an abused kid looking for a safe haven." That really resonated with me and gave me the feeling I was on the right track.

But Huck's perspective changes and the book shows how young minds can change...

DeRoche: Yes, and that's something that I took directly from Twain. Huck undergoes a change in Twain's original in terms of how he sees the slave Jim. And Huck goes through a similar change in this book.

Tom Sawyer helps Huck Finn break into a building.
Tom Sawyer helps Huck Finn break into a building.
Daniel Gonzalez/Redtail Press

Daniel, when Tim first approached you to illustrate a book about a young boy and a man referred to as "an illegal Mexigrant," what was your thought?

Gonzalez: I was really intrigued because I grew up next to the river in Boyle Heights. Running around the river and seeing all these layers of people who had been there before excited me. These people were very real for me. I started thinking about different family members who've had similar experiences being undocumented in the U.S. It turned into a collaboration because Tim was very open to my suggestions about the character Miguel.

What sort of suggestions did you make to Tim?

Gonzalez: The character Miguel wound up being based on a lot of family members who have worked on ranches with horses and are familiar with that culture. Some of the words Miguel uses comes from that experience.

Also, if you are going to talk about the L.A. River, you've got to talk about the L.A. River Cats!

Artist Leo Limon painted black and white cat faces over the storm drain caps. You used to be able to see them as you exit Zoo Drive in Griffith Park. That's such a marker if you were a person growing up in L.A. at the time!

Fireworks over Dodger Stadium as Huck and Miguel make their way along the LA River.
Fireworks over Dodger Stadium as Huck and Miguel make their way along the LA River.
Daniel Gonzalez/Redtail Press

On Sunday, February 18th, Tim DeRoche and Daniel Gonzalez will be appearing at The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. from 7-9 p.m. The L.A. Review of Books will record a podcast at the event and 10 percent of the book sales will benefit Friends of the L.A. River. More details here