By Ken Olende
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2906

New novel turns Huckleberry Finn on its head

Black American author Percival Everett takes the plot for his novel from an American classic
Issue 2906
the cover of the hardback edition of Percival Everett's James

The cover of the hardback edition of Percival Everett’s James, which is out now

James escapes slavery in the Southern united states and heads down the Mississippi river on a raft. He fled after overhearing that he was to be sold without his wife and family, and he is determined to free them.

He is accompanied by a white teenager, Huck—on the run for his own reasons. They crisscross a wild country inhabited by rogues, dangerous misfits and occasional allies.

Black American author Percival Everett takes the plot for his novel from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn first published in 1885. But Everett shifts the viewpoint to Huck’s companion Jim. But now Jim demands the right to be called James.

Twain intended his book to challenge racism, though some of it makes uncomfortable reading now. Black people are almost exclusively referred to by the n-word, and all speak in a thick “lawdy, massa” dialect. But their language never shows the playful wit of later dialect books by black writers. And the presentation of Jim as superstitious and credulous is patronising, no matter how heroic his behaviour.

Everett has enslaved people talk this dialect when whites are about. But as James explains to his children, “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them.” And Everett bends the stick the other way, sometimes making his black characters sound like university lecturers.

One comments on a drunken white, saying, “When we see him staggering around later acting the fool, will that be an example of proleptic irony or dramatic irony?”

Though several scenes directly follow and comment on passages in Huckleberry Finn, you don’t need to know the earlier novel to enjoy it. And the original’s rather forced ending is moved in a much more satisfying direction.

Throughout the book the ability to read and write is central as James constantly searches for paper and most poignantly a pencil. He had taught himself to read in his owner’s library and has dreams of debates with Enlightenment philosophers. Here he exposes the hypocrisy of their talk of liberty that so often includes a justification for slavery.

Readers experience the dehumanising powerlessness of being enslaved and the horror of being whipped or enduring the worst kinds of abuse without a murmur. But James also shows the intelligence and resilience it takes to survive and resist.

The power of the weather and the river are always present. As houses are swept down the Mississippi and in the claustrophobic climax, James is trapped below deck on a sinking riverboat.

Everett has written more than 20 novels and is a literature professor. He often takes a satirical and ironic look at the way black people are perceived in US culture. Issues of identity—assumed or imposed—abound.

Huck disguises himself in female clothes for a while and elsewhere James encounters an enslaved girl dressed as a boy. The fugitives travel with a blackface minstrel troop, whose leader claims to be against slavery—though not an abolitionist.

The bizarre practice of making black people apply blackface to appear on stage as black people would become a reality, after the civil war. Norman, a black man passing for white, can never get over the fact that white audiences never spot that the cakewalk dance was devised by slaves to laugh at the awkward way that whites danced.

He ponders, “It’s never occurred to them that we might find them mockable”.

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