James by Percival Everett

cover image

Percival Everett’s James is a highly original and entertaining reimagining of the Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) from the perspective of the runaway slave Jim, a subsidiary character in Twain’s novel which focussed on the moral view of the white 13 year-old boy Huck. In Everett’s novel, Jim is literate and highly intelligent, and the clumsy ungrammatical language that he speaks is a deliberate rendition of the language of the uneducated, a complete other language that he teaches his children, and engages in speaking with other black people in a cover-up of their natural intelligence, and to ensure that white people continue to feel superior. For if a white person should suspect he is being ridiculed or outsmarted, that would have immediate dire consequences for any slave in his vicinity. So the slaves speak the broken English of the illiterate when in the hearing of any white person, but between themselves engage in complexities of language which would astound any eavesdropper. In fact Jim is an avid reader of books, and in his dreams he engages in philosophical musings with the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Everett knows how to statirise American society of the time, revealing the horror and brutality of slavery whilst still providing a highly readable adventure story, following the escapades of Jim and his naive and high-spirited offsider Huck. The boy’s mischievousness that in Twain’s novel made a fool of the gullible Jim, in Everett’s story is met with humorous tolerance by a Jim who is not threatened by the child’s playful spirit. Jim cares for the boy, and encourages him to consider different points of view.

Slavery, and the racism that underpins it, is the main theme of the book. The black man has always to be on guard, has to cower, and live in perpetual fear. Whippings, lynchings, burnings and murder are common. Many die, just for that moment of freedom, of daring to steal a pencil stub, for daring to step outside the prison of their life, for daring to help another. For that moment of daring delivers a brief freedom of spirit, of being fearless, of being a person. Jim knows that the pencil stub that he carries in his pocket is important, it came with forfeiture of life, with the vision that Jim might write something that defies what the slaves have endured. For Jim it is a huge responsibility. He is the slave who might actually write the story of his life, not merely ‘relate’ it as did Venture Smith.

Percival’s book is truly ‘funny and horrifying, brilliant and rivetting’ as the cover proclaims. Readers familiar with the story of Huckleberry Finn will undoubtedly enjoy this version, but even readers who have never encountered Twain’s book, will be easily drawn into this highly readable and clever expose of the black slavery era of America.

Themes: Slavery, Racism, Freedom, Adventure, America 1860's.

Helen Eddy