James by Percival Everett

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After Percival Everett’s visit to the book festival here in Charlottesville, I heard from Laura that she she was moved to read this book and liked it very much. Knowing that it was a retelling of Huckleberry Finn, I decided reacquaint myself with that story especially after she added that there was a notable surprise change in the story.

What I did was less reading than skimming. It was as unpleasant as I had expected. In the best of books, I rarely enjoy adventure stories; in this case the adventures are unpleasant and when Tom Sawyer shows up on the scene, they are painfully cruel. I was not able to see the book as an attack on racism as some have claimed. I agree with this statement by Professor Railton quoted in Wikipedia:

According to Professor Stephen Railton of the University of Virginia, Twain was unable to fully rise above the stereotypes of Black people that White readers of his era expected and enjoyed, and, therefore, resorted to minstrel show-style comedy to provide humor at Jim’s expense, and ended up confirming rather than challenging late 19th-century racist stereotypes.

James was a welcome antidote. One distinguishing feature is that when Black people speak to each other they speak without the “slave language.” They must be careful so that no White people overhear them speak this way.

James tells us the story of his adventures in the first person and begins with his encounter with Huck. He had run away after hearing that he was to be sold South and found that Huck had faked his own death to escape his drunken and abusive father. James is bitten by a poisonous snake and barely survives after days of fever. While feverish, he dreams of conversations with John Locke, reproaching him for his views on slavery and for having written the Fundamental Constitutions for Carolina. Then Voltaire shows up.

Jim and Huck encounter the Duke and the Dauphine and they prove to be as problematic as they were in Huckleberry Finn and James and Huck are separated. An encounter James has with minstrel players was masterful. They needed a singer and figured they could put blackface on him and whitener around his eyes. And Norman, one member of the group, was Black but passed for White.

James and Norman made their way onto a riverboat that was loaded with passengers escaping the war which had just begun. When the boiler exploded, the boat sank and at this crucial moment, Huck reappeared in James’ life. I will stop here and leave the surprise for readers to discover themselves.

Percival Everett, James, Doubleday, 2024, 302 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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