Where Jim tells his story | Review of ‘James’ by Percival Everett

Using his characteristic wry humour, author Percival Everett reimagines Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and delivers a powerful new novel

May 03, 2024 09:30 am | Updated 12:20 pm IST

 An engraving depicting Huck and Jim from ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’.

 An engraving depicting Huck and Jim from ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Stepping into Huckleberry Finn’s world, Percival Everett has written Jim into being. Mark Twain’s celebrated but controversial novel of 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is the story of Huck, Tom Sawyer’s comrade-in-arms, who fakes his death to get away from his father, and attempts to “civilise” him. In his escape, he is unwittingly helped along by a slave, Jim, who chooses to run because his owner wants to sell him to someone else. The runaways, whose circumstances are hugely different, sail down the Mississippi river in a raft from Hannibal, Missouri, and while narrating the duo’s escapades, Twain also investigates race in pre-Civil War America.

In Twain’s novel, Huck and Jim are not together all the time. Taking his cue, Everett probes what happens to Jim away from Huck, giving him a voice and a chance to be present, with an incredible twist in the tale. Everett’s 24th novel, James, is set in the Civil War era, after which slavery was abolished, but that of course did not mean freedom in the true sense of the term, as blacks or any other minority community know. Immediately, there’s a chilling resonance to contemporary times. In America and anywhere else, where lives are still defined by divisions, Everett speaks to the present through the past. 

Everett gives agency to Jim, as first, he takes up a pencil to write his tale, giving himself a new name — James; and then picks a violent route to get his freedom. If Twain’s attempt to convey the contradictions of slavery came up short and “problematic”, as Everett has said in interviews, he fills the vacuum by telling the story from the other side.

A slave’s life

In the hands of Twain, who did a lot of research in local dialects, Jim’s first words in the novel are “Who dah?”. Everett sets up a brilliant back story, getting into Jim’s psyche and cultural space, and making him address readers directly. The novel begins with Jim waiting at the kitchen door of Miss Watson (Huck’s guardian), for some corn bread that has been promised to him. “Waiting is a big part of a slave’s life,” he says. Jim has noticed the white boys, Huck and Tom, watching him and pretending he is “their toy”. And since “it always pays to give white folks what they want”, Jim steps into the yard and calls out into the night: “Who dat dere in da dark lak dat?”

Author Percival Everett

Author Percival Everett | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sticking to dialect helps Jim get out of prickly situations, like when he is asked if he has been in Judge Thatcher’s library. “What I gone do wif a book?”, and he is let off the hook. He had always wondered what white folks would do to a slave who knew what irony meant or how retribution was spelled. Jim can read — the most “subversive thing we can do in any culture”, according to Everett — and speak perfect English. But he does that only when he is with family and fellow slaves. He knows only too well his survival will be at stake if there’s a language slip.

In fact, Jim gives lessons to children because safe movement through the world depends on language, for white folks expect slaves “to sound a certain way”. He asks them to repeat the basics, “Don’t make eye contact”; “Never speak first”; and so forth. The aim is to make white people feel better because “the better they feel, the safer we are”. Asked to translate, a child pipes up: “Da mo’ betta dey feels, da mo’ safer we be.” Jim gives her a pat: “Nice.”

Reflecting on race

In his writing, think Erasure or even The Trees, Everett has always used humour to present serious reflections on race, identity, history, human rights, life.

His humour, ironically, was shaped among others by Twain. There’s crackling wit throughout, and remarkable descriptions of Jim’s adventures on the road to freedom. When he is bitten by a rattlesnake, Jim is delirious and talks to Voltaire in his dream about equality and other such ideals. When he wakes up, Huck looks at him suspiciously: “You sho talk funny in yer sleep.” Jim wriggles out of the situation by reverting to, what else, dialect.

Young George, a fellow slave Jim meets, hands him a stolen pencil and asks him to tell his story “with your ears. Listen.”. Jim complies with these words: “With my pencil, I wrote myself into being. I wrote myself to here.” Bad things will happen to Young George; and Jim too lives the precarious life of a runaway slave; whippings and lashings are commonplace, and mean characters drift in and out, till he takes matters into his own hands.

That Everett is a master of language and loves to paint and fly-fish is evident in his word-images and at least one vivid account of fishing. One of the great passages is when Jim — he is a slave, he is capable of doing every job — tries to catch a catfish with his bare hands, using his fingers to wriggle like worms and act as bait.

Hemingway had famously declared that all modern American literature comes from one book by Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Make it two books, for Everett’s James is the perfect companion to Huck, giving agency to a voice we have been conditioned to not hear.

Percival Everett
Pan Macmillan


0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.