Tuesday, June 11, 2024

James by Percival Everett

by Percival Everett
320 pages
Published March 2024 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: When the enslaved Jim overhears that he is about to be sold to a man in New Orleans, separated from his wife and daughter forever, he decides to hide on nearby Jackson Island until he can formulate a plan. Meanwhile, Huck Finn has faked his own death to escape his violent father, recently returned to town. As all readers of American literature know, thus begins the dangerous and transcendent journey by raft down the Mississippi River toward the elusive and too-often-unreliable promise of the Free States and beyond.

While many narrative set pieces of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remain in place (floods and storms, stumbling across both unexpected death and unexpected treasure in the myriad stopping points along the river’s banks, encountering the scam artists posing as the Duke and Dauphin…), Jim’s agency, intelligence and compassion are shown in a radically new light.

My Thoughts: 
In 1968 my family moved into the house my parents would live in for 54 years. In that house there was a bit of wall between the room my sister and I shared and our parents' room. After my siblings and I were bathed for the night and in our jammies, my dad would lean against that wall, with the three of us leaning into him, and read to us. We read the usual kid fare (Dr. Seuss' Yertle the Turtle was a particular favorite) and books my dad had grown up reading. But the real treat was when my dad pulled one of the red leather-bound classics off of the shelves and read a chapter of that to us each night. One of those books was Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I loved that book, in no small part, I'm sure, as much to the setting and my dad's wonderful reading as for the book itself. But that book pulled me into another world, where children were the center of the world and had marvelous adventures. It never occurred to me then, a girl growing up in the late 60's/early 70's and in a smallish city with very few persons of color, to question Twain's use of the "n" word or his depiction of Jim. 

For Percival Everett, Huckleberry Finn was a very different book. Fortunately for us, he decided there was another story to be told about Twain's characters, a story where the enslaved Jim is an intelligent, well-read family man who protects himself by code switching and playing ignorant. 

Having read Huckleberry Finn more than once, I couldn't help but track that book against the action in this one and I was pleased to see Everett follow that original story line; it allowed me to get an entirely different take on both novels (although reading Twain's work is not essential to enjoying this book). Here Huck is what he is, an largely uneducated, naive young man who relies almost entirely on Jim's ability to survive, even as Jim is forced to allow Huck to believe he is the one doing the thinking. With Jim as the central character in the events, though, slavery plays a much greater role - from Jim's usage of it to try to make the pair some money to the risk Jim is constantly in along the way to the way readers get a real impression of how enslaved people were used and abused to the abuse that James must watch others suffer in order for him to survive. 
“White people try to tell us that everything will be just fine when we go to heaven. My question is, Will they be there? If so, I might make other arrangements.”
Everett doesn't stick entirely to Twain's outline, though. Through all of the book, Everett finds room for humor, generally at the expense (justifiably) of the white characters. He also has some real surprises in store for readers and an ending that I couldn't help cheering for, even as I feared what would happen beyond the final pages of the book. This one is going on the best-of list for 2024 when it will likely end the year at the top of the list. It's a book I would reread, a book I want to discuss with other readers. 

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