This is a problematic story to read and write about today because it’s a story largely about pre-civil war slave life in the Missouri of Twain’s boyhood, yet the story is engaging, the characters are well-developed, and this is probably the most thoughtful book of Twain’s since “Huckleberry Finn.”
David Wilson is an intelligent young lawyer who moves to the town of Dawson’s Landing on the Mississippi River hoping to establish a law practice. Instead, a remark he makes is misunderstood by townsfolk, and he is labeled a “pudd’nhead,” or harmless idiot, dashing his career plan. His hobby of collecting and studying fingerprints does not help his case. He lives next door to the wealthy Driscoll family who own a black (though by birth mostly white) woman named Roxy to take care of infant Tom Driscoll after the death of his mother. Roxy has her own child the same age, and fearing he will be sold “down the river” by her master, she changes the places of the two infants, allowing her birth son to become the heir of the family, while the real heir is raised as her slave child. This plan backfires when her son grows up spoiled and mean, careless with money, and spiteful to Roxy despite her early care for him. When Mr. Driscoll dies, Roxy is given her freedom, and she gladly leaves town for a career working on steam boats. Tom is taken in by his uncle, another rich man, and continues to get into money trouble through gambling and drinking. Tom becomes a thief to keep up with his debts, even stealing from his uncle. When Roxy returns having lost all her savings, how will Tom react to her news about his true origins? Two Italian twins arrive in town, causing a sensation, what role will they play in Tom’s plans? A murder is committed, and only Pudd’nhead Wilson has the evidence that can unveil the true murderer and set things to rights, but he doesn’t even know he has it.
As Twain explains in an afterword, this was originally planned as a farce about the twins, but other characters took over the story, and their tragic tale did not work with the humor, so Twain took the farce out and made the book more about Roxy and her son. Elements of the farce became his short story “Those Extraordinary Twins,” also in the first edition, but not read by me. There are difficult elements to the book, even though Twain was making valid satirical points, but I enjoyed it and recommend it.