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Canon Fodder: Ten Novels That Blow Up the Classics

huck-out-west-by-robert-cooverIn the world of popular intellectual property, nothing is left to waste. Whether it’s new stories in the same universe (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) or the continuation of a dead author’s series (Robert B. Parker’s Slow Burn, by Ace Atkins), characters and settings are often cannibalized for a commercial motive. Then there are authors who engage with canonical works for what we presume are other reasons, whether to add a modern layer of context to a beloved story or even to answer the question, What happens next? Robert Coover’s Huck Out West, coming in January, answers that question for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, while immersing our most cherished literary kids in the real-life horrors of the American West. It’s a richly provocative blend of tribute and satire—it’s also only the latest in a long line of literary riffs, reboots, and reimaginings of classics. Here are nine more.

Ahab's Wife; or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter NaslundAhab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund

Long before she met the legendary Captain Ahab, the quixotic quester at the dark heart of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, protagonist Una was a rebellious daughter, a lover of literature, an accomplished seamstress, a spiritual seeker, and a seafarer in her own right. Her narrative, which is part adventure, part love story, and overflows with literary references, includes encounters with luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, and Margaret Fuller. And then, of course, there’s that guy she married and that whale he chased.

Becky The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher by Lenore HartBecky: The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher, by Lenore Hart

If the thought of Becky Thatcher as a prostitute is too much for you to bear, skip Coover’s sequel and pick up this one instead. In it, Tom Sawyer’s childhood sweetheart gets her due as a plucky heroine who travels the war-torn South and lawless West to rescue her Union soldier husband. (No, she didn’t marry Tom, she married his cousin, Sid Hopkins.) Huck Finn joins the search, and Becky gets the chance to reconnect with Tom and reflect upon the passion that split them apart.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. JamesDeath Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been retold, rebooted, and had its grave opened and its corpse scavenged for parts (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?) Thanks to a nonagenarian P. D. James, however, it has also been used as fodder for a straitlaced murder mystery in which a body is found on the grounds of Pemberley, Darcy and Elizabeth’s stately home. Set in 1803, six years after their wedding, James catches up with the Bennets and does a pretty darn good Austen, right down to playing the role of the omniscient narrator herself. This doesn’t do anything new for either comedies of manners or murder mysteries but, for some readers, this might just be a you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment.

Finn by Jon ClinchFinn, by Jon Clinch

In Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim discover Huck’s mean old Pap dead in a house floating down the Mississippi River. Clinch takes the clues planted by Twain and weaves them into a chronicle of the mean old bastard’s demise, in the process answering the riddle of Huck’s parentage as well. Many of the books on this list look at race through a lens unavailable when the originals were written, and this one does, too, exploring Pap Finn’s racism and incongruous lust for black women. You could do a lot worse than making a reading project out this unorthodox trilogy: first Clinch’s Finn, then Twain’s Adventures, finishing up with Coover’s Huck Out West.

The Great Night by Chris AdrianThe Great Night, by Chris Adrian

This one doesn’t merely extend the story of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: it brings the fairy world, with its queen and king, Titania and Oberon, into our contemporary world, specifically San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. One midsummer’s eve, three mortals, all of whom share an emotional suffering with the queen and king, find themselves transported from their own miseries and transplanted into the wicked schemes of Puck and his cohorts. Pieces of the play mix and mingle with Adrian’s thoroughly charming retelling in an unpredictably enchanting novel with real emotional stakes.

Pym by Mat JohnsonPym, by Mat Johnson

Refused tenure both for refusing to sit on the Diversity Committee and his obsessive interest in Edgar Allan Poe, professor of African American studies Chris Jaynes then makes an astonishing discovery: a lost manuscript that proves Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, is actually nonfiction. Setting off with an unlikely crew to find the lost, black-inhabited island near Antarctica described by Poe, Jaynes discovers what else Poe was right about—and wrong about, too. An important meditation on race disguised as a rip-roaring adventure, this wildly inventive novel uses its source material in a remarkable way.

Rebecca’s Tale by Sally BeaumanRebecca’s Tale, by Sally Beauman

This postscript to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, authorized by the author’s estate, is less a reboot than a love letter to the much-loved original. Thanks to Beauman, readers can see, 20 years on, how Rebecca’s demise played out with Colonel Julyan, his daughter, Ellie, and the mysterious Terence Gray. Fans will love the concerted effort to learn the truth about Rebecca, finding the mystery and romance of the original is alive and well, while less committed readers may wish Beauman did something a bit more bold, like adding flesh-hungry zombies.

The Wind Done Gone by Alice RandallThe Wind Done Gone, by Alice Randall

Through the character of Cynara, Scarlett O’Hara’s mulatto half-sister, Randall’s debut explores the untold other side of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Her diary of life at the Tara plantation and during Reconstruction portrays slaves with more humanity and depth than Mitchell’s notably whitewashed version of the Old South. The book almost wasn’t published: the trust owning Mitchell’s copyright sued to block release but ultimately allowed it after the publisher made a donation to Morehouse College and the book was labeled a “parody”—which, in the broadest sense, it is. (Fans who don’t wish to have their rose-tinted glasses shattered may be satisfied with Alexandra Ripley’s authorized sequel, Scarlett [1991], although it’s pretty weak tea.)

The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean RhysThe Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Perhaps the grandmother of the genre, this 1966 prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) gave Rhys her greatest success and undoubtedly tipped other writers to the possibilities of responding to famous works. Antoinette Cosway, a Jamaican heiress, is married to an (unnamed) Mr. Rochester, who changes her name to Bertha, decides she’s crazy, and moves her to England—where she becomes the fire-starting madwoman in the attic who stands in the way of Rochester and Jane’s marriage. (Is it too late to issue a spoiler alert?) The Wide Sargasso Sea builds on Bronte’s protofeminist themes with a postcolonial exploration of race and displacement; if you studied literature at a small liberal-arts college, you’ve already read this one.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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