Still, I should note that there’s more to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum than a bunch of displays aimed at kids. The boyhood home itself, along with the Huckleberry Finn House and most of the Interpretive Center, offers modern, well-designed exhibits with informative signage that draws broadly from Twain’s own writing. From them, visitors learn not only about Twain’s upbringing along the Mississippi—his parentage, his first loves, his family’s involvement with slavery—but also his later life as an author and performer. Everything is kept at an introductory level, though, so the information never gets overwhelming.
Not all of the historical site is in tip-top shape, however. The Becky Thatcher House and Grant’s Drug Store, for example, are currently closed for renovation. (The docent at the front desk encouraged us to peek inside the windows of these buildings. “That way you’ll be able to see everything you would have seen if the buildings were open to the public,” she explained. When we peeked inside the Becky Thatcher House, though, all we saw was a gutted first floor that looked as if it was being used as a storage shed.) Also, the J. M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, where Twain’s father held court, looks as if it hasn’t been touched—even for a quick cleaning—since the 1950s.
So, even the very young take something away from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.
In addition to the Interpretive Center and the various homes on the site, the price of admission—a fairly reasonable $9 for adults, $5 for children 6-12, and $0 for everyone 5 and younger—also lets visitors into the Museum Gallery a few blocks south on Main Street. As its name suggests, this building houses both a museum (first floor) and an art gallery (second floor) of all things Twain. There’s also a gift shop in the entryway where visitors can buy Twain paraphernalia, including some classy planters shaped like his face.
The Museum Gallery, in my opinion, is the best part of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex. The first floor features various interactive exhibits based on Twain’s most popular novels, short stories, and memoirs: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee, Innocents Abroad, etc. Here, children can walk through Tom Sawyer’s cave, grip an Arthurian baseball bat, dress up like pioneers, sit in a stage coach, and watch a movie from Huck Finn’s raft. On a landing in between the two floors, they can also pretend to steer a river boat and sound its whistle.
The second floor gallery is oriented more towards adults. It boasts two series of original Norman Rockwell paintings based on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It also displays various items of vintage Twain kitsch, two freakishly giant Twain busts, and various Twain relics, which range from the mundane (his top hat), to the predictable (one of his white suit jackets), to the bizarre (the plaster death mask of his 19 month old son Langdon).
All in all, I enjoyed it immensely.
And I never felt judged by the pink-haired docents, none of whom actually had pink hair. In fact, I’ve learned that when I travel with my three little girls, no one ever pays much attention to me—except to tell me how cute my daughters are. So, every time I had the opportunity to flex my knowledge of Twain trivia, I got upstaged by my daughters’ dimpled cheeks. I’m not complaining, of course. I’m sure it happened to Twain all the time. I mean, he did have three daughters of his own.
Ironically, the closest I came to having a conversation about Twain with one of the docents came when I was purchasing tickets for my daughters. When I told the docent that I needed tickets for two adults, I didn’t realize that I had to pay five bucks for my six year old as well. When I realized my mistake—after I had already paid and donated a dollar (I think) to their endowment fund—I told the docent that I owed her five more bucks.
“Well,” she said, “we’ll just pretend she’s five today.”
“Ah,” I said, knowingly, “a real Twain stretcher!”
She looked at me vaguely.
That was it.
We left Hannibal about two hours later having seen all we needed to see. On our way out, our borrowed GPS system steered us up a wrong road that carried us to a residential area on a hill overlooking the town. Once I finally realized we were not on the road to Branson—our final destination—I did an awkward three point turn while a local kid watched on without curiosity, her bored face contrasting with the excited faces I had seen on my own daughters’ faces as they had toured Hannibal’s premiere attraction.
For an instant—in the time it would take to swat a Mississippi River mosquito—I wondered if that girl realized she lived in the birthplace of the American childhood, the town that inspired the adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and every other kid who has ever wanted to witness a murder, get lost in a cave, find treasure, or raft the Mississippi.
Probably not. The dull look on her face said it all.
In fact, times like that remind me that places like the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum are worth braving soaring temperatures and out-of-the-way locales. They’re memorials to the childhood we all remember or wish we had had—when all we really needed for fun and adventure was a dead cat and a string to swing it by.