This is another one of those classics where some of the plot points and characters are so familiar that you have to read well into the book before you're sure whether you've read it before. In this case, I was well past the entrepreneurial fence-painting and into Tom's nocturnal adventures with Huck Finn before I decided I had not. And I'm very glad to have read it now.
Twain doesn't condescend to his juvenile readers: not in language, not by softening the very real dangers of Tom's adventures, and not by explicit moralizing (though there's plenty that's implicit, particularly in Tom's relationship with the maternal Aunt Polly). His narrator, insofar as he comments on the action at all, is very much of the "boys will be boys" school, but also very much attuned to Tom's immature but childishly logical (and childishly malleable) view of the world. In short, he does a wonderful job of letting us understand what Aunt Polly cannot, why Tom does the things he does.
There is plenty to make the modern reader uncomfortable in this story, of course; even laying aside the now forbidden word for the Black people. Most of this discomfort clusters around the depiction of the Black characters, and, of course, the troubling villain, Injun Joe. It's hard for me to tell, without having a much better knowledge of Twain in general, how much if any was also intended to be uncomfortable for his contemporary readers. As a humourist and humanist, Twain doubtless had a certain amount of awareness beyond the normal, but did he intend his outcast poor white Huck Finn's assertions about "having to" sit down with the generous ex-slave who was feeding him to strike his contemporary readers (the adult ones anyway) as it does today's readers, or was he merely pandering to and reinforcing the social order of his day? As I say I am too far removed from, and not knowledgeable enough about, the author to be certain.
Injun Joe is a villain in a nineteenth-century boys' story. The significance of his being not just "Injun" but a "half-breed" is that it places him outside the societal norms altogether, and he is thus irredeemable. He is given a motive - revenge - but it is not a motive the story is interested in: like Iago, his vindictiveness exists to make him bad, not to excuse or explain him. The use of this particular literary convention - racializing the villain -is something that has become impermissible only within my lifetime; indeed, I'd say only in the last couple of decades. So I do not fault Twain for it - I merely have to read with that same historical filter that screens out the noxiousness of other class, race and gender assumptions, while trying not to miss the genuine social commentary that was exercised by Twain himself. (The case of Huck Finn, who is grossly neglected, and then has trouble adapting to the conditions of his rescue, is fairly clearly one such piece of commentary).
Look at me, reading Tom Sawyer like a grown-up. As a kid (though of the wrong gender!), I really like the adventures - great places (a deserted island with a thunderstorm, a haunted house, unexplored caves) and cool, if occasionally inchoate quests (being pirates, finding buried treasure, and the like).
Becky Thatcher. Sigh. She's why, as a kid reader, I'm the wrong gender. Oh well, a girl with agency in a 19th century boys' story would be a bit much to ask.
Really enjoyed it anyway. After some dithering, I give it a fourth star.