Monday, March 11, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: James by Percival Everett

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I love re-imaginings of classic stories, and have been excited to read James by Percival Everett, which will be released on March 19. This is a re-imagined Huckleberry Finn, told from the viewpoint of Jim.

Jim is an enslaved man with secrets. He is self-educated (highly educated) and devoted to his wife and daughter. He is also entangled with Huck (as in Twain’s novel.)

Jim learns that he is going to be sold, separated from his family, so he runs off to a nearby island to hide. There, he meets up with Huck, who has just faked his own death to escape from his cruel drunkard of a father. Now Jim knows he will likely be charged not only with running away, but also with killing Huck. The two flee the island.

Jim’s goal is to find a way to earn money to purchase his wife and daughter. Huck’s goal is adventure. While roughly following the timeline of Huckleberry Finn, this novel follows Jim rather than Huck. His adventures and close calls are even more compelling than Huck’s.

The novel shows the agency of enslaved people and the secretly subversive ways they undermine the institution of slavery. It also shows the fear and loss that are embedded in their daily existence. One of their tools is language. Whenever around Whites, they speak “slave,’ but among themselves, they speak in an educated, grammatical way that allows them to mock the ignorance of Whites. One of the most unsettling and even frightening things that Jim can do is to speak “correctly” to a White man. Language is power. Liberation will ultimately require choosing/claiming his own name, James.

This is a powerful novel that turns Mark Twain’s classic on its head. Highly recommended.

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