‘James’: an important, clever and engaging reworking of an American classic

Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is retold from the perspective of a slave on the run

25 June 2024 - 12:48 By Margaret von Klemperer
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'James' is an important, clever and fascinating book.
'James' is an important, clever and fascinating book.
Image: Supplied

Percival Everett
Mantle Books

Percival Everett is an African American academic and acclaimed novelist whose 2021 novel, The Trees, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In James, he has produced an astonishing and brilliant book that deserves any and all the prizes that may come its way.

The eponymous central character is the runaway slave Jim from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and here that novel from the 1880s is retold from his viewpoint. Retelling of stories from the literary canon has become a popular activity over the last few years, with very mixed results, but this is a definite success. Huckleberry Finn, hailed in its day as the great American novel, is inevitably now seen as problematic, mainly because of Twain’s use of racist language and how he presents some of the attitudes prevailing at the time. However, in his author’s note at the end of James, Everett gives a warm nod to Twain’s humour and humanity.

Language is a central issue in the book. Twain’s novel was a pioneer in using dialect in literature, and Everett turns that on its head. Writing in the first person, James uses correct and quite formal English to record his adventures, but when he speaks to any white person, though not to other slaves, he uses what can be called “slave dialect”. There is a scene early in the novel where James is instructing his daughter and other children in how to speak to whites and why they should speak to them in this way: “‘White folks expect us to sound a certain way, and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,’ I said. ’The only ones who suffer when they are made to feel inferior is us.’” It is a very telling scene, and it reverberates throughout the book. James has to hide his ability to read and write as well, but the reader learns how the narrator acquired these skills, and Everett makes it all completely believable.

And then James hears that he is to be sold, so he goes on the run, hoping eventually to raise enough money to buy his wife and child and move to the north, where they can all be free. And, of course, he is joined on the run by Huck, who has faked his own death in a bid to escape his abusive drunken father. But inevitably this means James will be suspected of having killed Huck, which throws his plans into disarray. Everett depicts the relationship between the two with great subtlety. Huck is an almost feral child, but with the advantage of having white skin, while James is an intelligent and compassionate man, but still a slave.

Some of the adventures the two have as they escape down the Mississippi are the same as those described in Huckleberry Finn, but at the times when the pair are separated, the reader is presented with what is happening to James alone. Some of the events are savagely funny — Everett is often a very humorous writer — and the story rollicks along. As with The Trees, James gets darker as it progresses, the narrator’s anger at his enslaved position becoming stronger, and ultimately more violent. The horror of slavery becomes central to the story, rather than the adventurous escape and the often farcical situations James and Huck find themselves in. But the compelling nature of the story and the brilliant writing keep the reader engrossed. James is an important, clever and fascinating book.

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