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Reviews for James

by Percival Everett

Publishers Weekly
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As in his classic novel Erasure, Everett portrays in this ingenious retelling of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a Black man who’s mastered the art of minstrelsy to get what he needs from gullible white people. Many of the same things happen as they do in Twain’s original: Jim escapes from enslavement on a Missouri farm and joins up with Huck, a white boy who’s faked his own death. Huck is fleeing from his abusive father, while Jim is hoping to find a way to free his wife and daughter. The main difference is in the telling. Jim narrates, not Huck, and in so doing he reveals how he employs “slave” talk (“correct incorrect grammar”) when white people can hear, to make them feel safe and superior. Everett also pares down the prose and adds humor in place of sentimentality. When Huck and Jim come upon a band of slave hunters, Huck claims Jim, who’s covered by a tarp, is a white man infected with smallpox (“We keep thinkin’ he gone die, then he just don’t”). Clever additions to the narrative include a tense episode in which Jim is fraudulently sold by a slaver to “Dixie” composer Daniel Decatur Emmett, who has Jim perform in blackface with his singing troupe. Jim’s wrenching odyssey concludes with remarkable revelations, violent showdowns, and insightful meditations on literature and philosophy. Everett has outdone himself. (Mar.)

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as told from the perspective of a more resourceful and contemplative Jim than the one you remember. This isn’t the first novel to reimagine Twain’s 1885 masterpiece, but the audacious and prolific Everett dives into the very heart of Twain’s epochal odyssey, shifting the central viewpoint from that of the unschooled, often credulous, but basically good-hearted Huck to the more enigmatic and heroic Jim, the Black slave with whom the boy escapes via raft on the Mississippi River. As in the original, the threat of Jim’s being sold “down the river” and separated from his wife and daughter compels him to run away while figuring out what to do next. He's soon joined by Huck, who has faked his own death to get away from an abusive father, ramping up Jim’s panic. “Huck was supposedly murdered and I’d just run away,” Jim thinks. “Who did I think they would suspect of the heinous crime?” That Jim can, as he puts it, “[do] the math” on his predicament suggests how different Everett’s version is from Twain’s. First and foremost, there's the matter of the Black dialect Twain used to depict the speech of Jim and other Black characters—which, for many contemporary readers, hinders their enjoyment of his novel. In Everett’s telling, the dialect is a put-on, a manner of concealment, and a tactic for survival. “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” Jim explains. He also discloses that, in violation of custom and law, he learned to read the books in Judge Thatcher’s library, including Voltaire and John Locke, both of whom, in dreams and delirium, Jim finds himself debating about human rights and his own humanity. With and without Huck, Jim undergoes dangerous tribulations and hairbreadth escapes in an antebellum wilderness that’s much grimmer and bloodier than Twain’s. There’s also a revelation toward the end that, however stunning to devoted readers of the original, makes perfect sense. One of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal
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The rules of engagement for Black people encountering white people are brutally clear in 1830s Missouri, a state with enslavement. Don't ever make a white person think you know something he doesn't, or you'll pay. In this virtuoso reworking of Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it's the enslaved Jim who tells the tale. Heard from Jim's perspective, events look different than they did to Huck, because Jim is living inside a mask: deliberately hiding who and what he is and whatever aspirations he may have. For example, with his wife and family, Jim speaks clearly, even as he teaches his children to only mumble around white people, in order to give them what they like, a moment of correction. As in Twain's original, the action is fast and furious. The characters grab readers' attention and, with Jim and Huck, their hearts too. A twist near the end of the tale changes the nature of Huck and Jim's relationship dramatically. VERDICT Everett (English, Univ. of Southern California), author of The Trees and Erasure, has written an even richer and penetrating Adventures than Twain's already rich masterpiece. It will fly off library shelves.—David Keymer

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Huckleberry Finn, acclaimed by many as a great American novel, has also been sharply criticized for its racist portrayal of Jim, the childlike “Negro slave” Huck befriends on their riverboat journey. In an astounding riposte, the much-lauded Everett (Dr. No, 2022) rewrites the story as a liberation narrative, told from Jim (or rather James’) point of view. Erudite, a student of philosophy, and a calm strategic thinker, James is adept at code shifting from his normal dignified speech and behavior patterns to the shuffling, aw-shucks demeanor white folks expect, and even gives “speech translation" lessons to the plantation's enslaved children (disturbingly similar to “The Talk” modern Black parents give their children about police encounters). When he is accused of robbery and murder, James flees with an initially gleeful Huck, who only gradually understands the terrifying reality of being a Black man with a price on his head. As Huck comes to acknowledge the depth of his relationship with James, and the "slave's" profound gifts, the boy is forced to recognize the illogic of white supremacy and privilege. Meanwhile James, determined to return and rescue his wife and daughter, takes the story in a completely different direction than the original, exemplifying the relentless courage and moral clarity of an honorable man with nothing to lose. An absolutely essential read.