James: A Novel

by Percival Everett

Hardcover, 2024

Call number

FIC EVE

Publication

Doubleday (2024), 320 pages

Description

"From Percival Everett-a recipient of the NBCC Lifetime Achievement Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Booker Prize, and numerous PEN awards-comes James, a retelling of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both harrowing and ferociously funny, told from the enslaved Jim's point of view. When the enslaved Jim overhears that he is about to be sold to a man in New Orleans, separated from his wife and daughter forever, he decides to hide on nearby Jackson Island until he can formulate a plan. Meanwhile, Huck Finn has faked his own death to escape his violent father, recently returned to town. As all readers of American literature know, thus begins the dangerous and transcendent journey by raft down the Mississippi River toward the elusive and too-often-unreliable promise of the Free States and beyond. While many narrative set pieces of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remain in place (floods and storms, stumbling across both unexpected death and unexpected treasure in the myriad stopping points along the river's banks, encountering the scam artists posing as the Duke and Dauphin...), Jim's agency, intelligence and compassion are shown in a radically new light. Brimming with the electrifying humor and lacerating observations that have made Everett a "cult literary icon" (Oprah Daily), and one of the most decorated writers of our lifetime, James is destined to be a major publishing event and a cornerstone of twenty-first century American literature"--… (more)

Media reviews

Lasman: Who is Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who is James in your novel, and what is the link between them? How do you connect these characters who share so much but also have quite different experiences across the two books? Everett: The Jim in Twain’s novel is an important character,
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and a symbolic character representing slavery, though Twain cautions us not to find any deeper meaning than an adventure story in it. I think that is being coy. Twain would not have been and was not capable of rendering Jim’s story. It was far removed from his experience, though he could have stood witness and did stand witness to many people like Jim. The Huck character suffers familial oppression, which in its way is no different from any other kind of oppression, but it’s still not the same thing as slavery. Huck doesn’t have to worry that when he runs, he will be murdered. When I started thinking about the novel, about the fact that Jim’s lack of agency was not a failure but an impossibility, I decided that I needed to give this character some agency.
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“My idea of hell would be to live with a library that contained only reimaginings of famous novels,” writes Dwight Garner in his rave review of Percival Everett’s radical new reinterpretation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “James is the rarest of exceptions. It should come bundled with
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Twain’s novel. It is a tangled and subversive homage, a labor of rough love.” (from Library of America marketing email)
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Crypto-Willobie
If I could I'd give this 6 stars out of 5. Or maybe 8.
LibraryThing member thorold
We’ve all read [Huckleberry Finn], or at least we all have a good idea of what it’s about — it is another of those books that gets referenced so much that it’s almost unnecessary actually to read it. But we probably haven’t thought much about how different the story would look if it were
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told from Jim’s point-of-view. It’s the classic bacon-vs.-egg situation: what seems like a thrilling adventure to the white boy is a hideously frightening life or death struggle to the enslaved black adult.

Everett brings us face to face with this reality in a delicate, ironic way, letting us draw our own conclusions rather than ramming the obvious down our throats. He says his aim is not to attack Twain’s book, but to complement it in an affectionate way, giving us access to a way of seeing things that would have been closed to the original author.

He does this on multiple levels, with the most important and unexpected being language: he makes the point that slaves would have communicated between themselves in a private language inaccessible to their white masters, and that has nothing to do with the “slave dialect” they used for talking to white people. Since we don’t know much about this private language, he adopts the arbitrary convention of having the slaves in the story speak standard modern English amongst themselves (the whites all speak southern dialect, of course), and translate this into “Yes, massa” dialect as required to display suitable humility and unthreatening stupidity to the whites. To rub the point in, we see the narrator, James/Jim, giving the black children a formal dialect lesson in an early chapter.

We also learn that Jim has taught himself to read, and is studying on the quiet in Judge Thatcher’s neglected library of Enlightenment philosophy. Again, this isn’t meant to be taken literally as something that would have been going on behind the scenes in Huck Finn, but it is supposed to make us stop and realise that these are normal, intelligent human beings, perfectly capable of talking about Locke and Voltaire if they got the chance, who are being made to live like animals.

Everett has the sense of humour and storytelling ability to engage with someone like Mark Twain without making himself look silly, and he has the perception to make us look at something we are very familiar with in a new way: this book probably won’t teach us anything we didn’t already know about slavery, but it will force us to re-examine the way we think about what we have read about it previously. Entertaining and worthwhile.
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LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
An incisive, subversive reimagining of a classic.
LibraryThing member markm2315
A clever retelling of Huckleberry Finn that shows us much more explicitly than Samuel Clemens did what it means to be enslaved. You will also see why Gov. Desantis would rather not have it talked about.
LibraryThing member Cariola
I've never been a huge fan of Mark Twain, but I really enjoyed this novel based on Jim, a character from Huckleberry Finn. Jim is a slave who learns he is about to be sold and joins Huck on a raft escape down the Mississippi River. Here, although he is still Jim to almost everyone else, to himself
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he is James, and he can both read and write--talents that, of course, he has to keep hidden in the pre-Civil War South. He also has two manners of speaking, the slave-talk that white people expect and the more "correct" English spoken by white people. In other words, James is not just a crafty slave but an intelligent, capable man. Everett draws on many of the stories in Twain's book, including his and Huck's meetup with the Duke and the King, but in much of the novel, he is on the run on his own, encountering other men both enslaved and on the run and a series of bounty hunters, slave owners, overseers, and bigots. I was intrigued by the episode in which a minstrel quartet in need of a tenor "rents" Jim and makes him up to look like a white man made up to look black.

James's initial plan is to escape being sold away from his wife and daughter, then earn money to buy their freedom, but this plan takes a sharp turn near the end of the story.

This novel is entertaining, creative and thought-provoking. I will be looking into this author's other works.
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LibraryThing member KallieGrace
I thought I might like this even though it's a slave narrative because it is described as humorous....but it is still very hard to read at times for the obvious trauma and abuse that come with the topic. I wouldn't call it funny, though maybe a bit satirical. I love how James is intelligent and
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literate and speaks two different ways depending on the audience. That is probably the funny part, showing how the white enslavers were idiots for not understanding their intelligence. It is an excellent story, and I liked it better than Huckleberry Finn, but it still leaves you deeply despairing for the hell of slavery.
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LibraryThing member Romonko
Before I begin, I highly recommend that you read this book! The reason I wanted to read it was because it was supposed to flesh out the story of Huckleberry Finn, which is one of my all-time favourite books. Well, this book did have Huck Finn and the slave Jim in it, but it is definitely not a
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children's book. Percival Everett is a marvellous author. This is the first book that I have read of his, but I've marked the rest of his backlist now. The book is quite simply, brilliant! The characters are living, breathing human beings. The story is gripping and it filled me with a sense of dread and hope from the very first page. Even with the graphic nature of the subject, the book retains a soft sense of humour and portrays random human goodness. I always loved Jim in Huckleberry Finn, but this book portrays his intelligence, compassion, warmth and his total understanding of the entire human race. In this book we see Jim and Huck paddling down the Mississippi River. Their journey is fraught with danger and extreme stealth is required because Jim is a runaway slave, and there are bulletins promising a reward for his capture. On their journey Huck and Jim meet all kinds of different people. I couldn't help but think that this plethora of characters and their various shenanigans is closely linked to Mark Twain's writing. Twain's characters were very singular and unforgettable, and there was good and bad among them. Everett's characters are like this too and they are all so believable. This book is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and I hope that the judges realize what they have here in this unforgettable novel, and award him the top prize.
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LibraryThing member 37143Birnbaum
Percival Everett seems to be a very angry man. The story was good. I liked Trees better.
LibraryThing member msf59
“My names is James. I wish I could tell my story with a sense of history as much as industry. I was sold when I was born and then sold again...I can tell you that I am a man who is cognizant of his world, a man who has a family, who loves a family, who has been torn from his family...”

This is a
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re-imagining of [The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn], told from Jim the slave’s point of view. A bold concept that could have failed miserably but in the deft hands of an incredibly talented writer, it works brilliantly. It contains many of the narrative set-pieces from the original novel, like storms, riverboats, treasures and con men. All seen through Jim’s compassionate and steady gaze. This is the book of the summer and possibly of the year. Yep, it is that good.
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LibraryThing member booklove2
I don't remember much about reading Twain's 'Finn' almost twenty years ago. Upon looking up my notes on it, my main takeaway was that "Twain didn't really know what to do with Jim." As soon as I heard the great Percival Everett was going to take on the book from Jim's point-of-view, I knew it would
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be a winner for him. It automatically went on way too high of a pedestal before it was even released. Upon reading 'James', I'm a bit disappointed. Sure, I have only read a couple Everett's books, but Everett is a genius. This seemed more like a recap of Twain's book with the occasional genius sentence that I expect from Everett sprinkled throughout. I get that Twain's original work is an adventure novel, but I'm not sure why Everett had to lean so heavy in focusing on plot. The entire point is that James is more layered than he is allowed to let the surrounding white folk around him know. And I realize James can not be spouting references to modern day things, but I did expect this narrative to be more layered. Why can't James have an even larger interior wisdom that at least the reader gets to witness, as the way the book is written, James is writing things down, rather than allowing most of the characters around him to see that he is subverting expectations based on race? Then I was sad about some of the choices in the end of the book. Possibly re-reading the source material would have helped me here. I think also, this is Everett's move to a big publisher. Hopefully that means his backlist of 30+ books will be republished and easier to find? I can wish.But also, I hope this isn't less amazingness from Percival Everett that we get, just because he moved to a big publisher. Maybe more plot based books now? It's funny how that might be mirroring one of the purposes of the book 'James' in the first place. But really, I think a reply to Twain's 'Huck' was needed, and I think Everett was one of the rare writers who could do it.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Here is a reimagining of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and because it's by Percival Everett, you already know it's going to be good. This novel is in the form of a diary kept by James, known as Jim in the originating novel. When James finds out he is to be sold, he runs, unwilling to lose his
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family. He is soon joined by Huck, who is running away for his own reasons and they set out together to journey down the Mississippi River to where it joins the Ohio, which is where James plans to head north. As they travel, they face many dangers and are often separated, but always the dangers that James faces are magnitudes higher, as is made clear, over and over again.

How strange a world, how strange an existence, that one's equal must argue for one's equality, that one's equal must hold a station that allows airing of that argument, that one cannot make that argument for oneself, that premises of said argument must be vetted by those equals who do not agree.

Everett makes the horrors of slavery clear, but like he did in The Trees, there is also humor. This is, after all, an adventure story, with the episodic structure of that genre. James is well-read, having used Judge Thatcher's library for years and, like the other enslaved people, he uses the dialect expected of him around white people, but among others like him, he is free to speak the way he wants, a secret language switching that Huck occasionally catches him at. His odd friendship with Huck is wonderfully developed. This is the best book I have read so far this year and I will be surprised if anything surpasses it. It's an extraordinary achievement from one of our greatest living writers.
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LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
“Belief has nothing to do with truth.”

This book takes the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and turns it upside down and inside out! (I kinda wish I had re-read the original before I read this...) It does sag a little in the middle, but it is well worth the read! Telling the story from Jim's
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point of view, and the reality of a slave's life at the time is just amazing! The slaves change in diction when white people are around is brilliant! And teaching the children how to speak proper ‘slave’ talk around the whites is even better!

And this is not the Jim you grew up with! This Jim has “…imagined conversations with Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke about slavery, race and, of all things, albinism.”

And that big twist at the beginning of Part Three! Whooeee!!! And Chapter Seven of Part Three is awesome! It just gets better from there!

“I am a sign. I am your future. I am James.”

“Just James.”
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LibraryThing member srms.reads
“With my pencil I wrote myself into being. I wrote myself to here.”

When James (“Jim”), an enslaved man, hears that he is to be sold to a man from New Orleans and separated from his family he runs away, intending to find a way to secure freedom for himself and his family. He is joined by
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young Huckleberry Finn, who is running from his abusive father. James is aware of Huck’s plight and is protective of him. The narrative is shared from James’s first-person PoV as he embarks on a life-altering journey.

James by Percival Everett has essentially been described as a reimagining of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In my humble opinion, Percival Everett’s masterpiece is much more than that. The first segment of this novel explores familiar territory from within the framework of the classic that inspired this novel, but presenting the story from James’s PoV adds much depth and perspective to the story many of us have enjoyed over the years. James’s perspective adds a dimension of maturity and a more somber tone to what many of us consider a childhood classic.

“Waiting is a big part of a slave’s life, waiting and waiting to wait some more. Waiting for demands. Waiting for food. Waiting for the end of days. Waiting for the just and deserved Christian reward at the end of it all.”

Frankly, I thought the lighter moments described in this novel were less humorous (the satirical element and the irony evoking amusement) and more thought-provoking. The author never resorts to embellishments, even in the most intense moments. James’s approach to life as an enslaved man compelled to suppress his true self, sharing his wisdom on how to survive and navigate through a world that has mostly been cruel to him and his fellow men, is expressed eloquently but often in a reserved tone.

“White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them..”

As the narrative progresses, the author takes a detour from his source material and assumes ownership of James’s narrative, presenting our protagonist as a brave, perceptive and wise, self-taught learned person with compassion for his fellow beings. He holds no illusions about the consequences of his actions, fully aware that if caught his fate would differ from that of his fellow runaway Huck. His musings on slavery, racism, the human condition and humanity in general are expressed through his imagined conversations with characters whose works he has been reading in secret.

“How strange a world, how strange an existence, that that one’s equal must argue for one’s equality, that one’s equal must hold a station that allows airing of an argument, that one cannot make that argument for oneself, that premises of said argument must be vetted by those equals who do not agree.”

James’s journey is not an easy one and the author does not try to paint it as such. Each of James’s experiences, the consequences of the choices he makes along the and the people he meets (slavers, tricksters, liars and fellow enslaved men and women who have experienced unimaginable cruelty at the hands of their masters) contribute to his understanding of the world around him and the perils he will inevitably face on the road he has chosen to travel. His companion Huck is often unable to comprehend the dangers James could potentially face , often puzzled by what he assumes is James’ uncharacteristic behavior, leading to many meaningful, heartfelt conversations between the two. Needless to say, some scenes are difficult to read, which is to be expected given the subject matter. Set in the years leading up to the Civil War, James is aware of the growing tensions over the issue of slavery but what does this mean for James and his quest for freedom? Will he be able to protect his family from a fate decided for them by those whose intentions and actions are driven by self-interest and utter disregard for human life? Everett tells a story that will stay with you long after you have finished this novel with a surprise revelation toward the end that will change the way you think about the characters and the books that inspired this novel.

Heart-wrenching, brutally honest, yet brilliantly crafted and immersive with superb characterization and emotional depth, James by Percival Everett is a memorable read. This novel is surely going on my list of favorite reads of 2024. I read an ARC of this novel and promptly ordered a finished copy for my personal collection.

I followed my reading with the audiobook (after the novel was published) narrated by Dominic Hoffman who has done a remarkable job of breathing life into the characters and this story. All the stars for the audio narration!

This is my third time reading Percival Everett, after The Trees and Dr. No , and I’m glad to say that with James, he does not disappoint!

Many thanks to Doubleday Books for the gifted ARC. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.
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LibraryThing member fromthecomfychair
Stylistically brilliant and purposeful retelling of the story of Huck Finn and Jim on the Mississippi River, from the point of view of Jim, or James, as he calls himself. James and Huck meet on the island in the river off the coast of Hannibal, Missouri, both escaping terrible fates: James is about
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to be sold away from his wife and daughter, Huck is escaping his brutal father.

As Everett says, Twain could not tell Jim's story, because he could not really know Jim's story. In this story, James has taught himself to read and is more educated than most of the whites who surround him. He speaks a Southern slave Blacklish to avoid their detection.

At every point in this riveting story, I was routing for James to survive and gain his freedom. This is a masterpiece, one that should be read in high schools along with Huckleberry Finn.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I think I need to sit with this, and perhaps after doing that I will augment this review. Or maybe I don't have a lot to say about this masterpiece. It is tragic, action-packed, funny and redemptive and it tells the story of a real man and of America, then and now. In his GR interview, Everett said
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he could not have told Huck's story, and that Twain couldn't write this story. I kept remembering that as I listened to this audiobook, and though I would never have had that thought independently it feels absolutely accurate. (The narration by Dominic Hoffman is stellar by the way.) I have read Huck Finn five times and listened to the audio with my then teenage son on a road trip to Memphis. It is one of my favorite books. While I think the grounding in the original may have made me love this a hair more, I don't think it was necessary. This stands on its own, though knowing the basics of the original would be helpful. In the end, the books have very little to do with one another, they are as related and as unrelated as Brave New World is to The Tempest. A new classic is born.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
This alternative version of Huckleberry Finn shines the spotlight on Jim, an enslaved man who runs away when he learns he’s about to be sold. Like in the original novel, Jim meets up with Huck but they are soon separated, and Jim takes center stage. Percival Everett gives readers a fully formed
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version of Jim with intellect, emotions, and a life story. He portrays enslaved people as people, not chattel. On some level I already knew this, but Everett’s use of the classic “show, don’t tell” method reached me in new ways while also being a rollicking good tale.
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LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
Brilliant storytelling. A riveting reimagination of characters from an iconic volume in American literature. A tale that skillfully blends humor, humanity and unexpected twists to explore issues that remain as timely today as they did in the Civil War era. What isn’t there not to admire in
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Percival Everett’s latest work? Given the fact that I was utterly delighted a year or so ago when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead,” I wasn’t entirely surprised that I devoured “James” in only a few days. This is one book that is deserving of all the “hype” in literary circles.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
In common usage, the word hypothetical is an adjective. However, in the legal context, it acquires new meaning as a noun. These “what if’s” can shed light on legal questions by posing thought experiments that force advocates to examine issues from new perspectives (e.g., "Could a president
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who ordered SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival [and] who was not impeached, would he be subject to criminal prosecution?"). The truly sorry answer given to this hypothetical was a waffling “no.”

In his novel, JAMES, Everett adopts just such an approach to examine many of the cruelest aspects of slavery. What if Jim, a character in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” were a well read, highly intelligent and resourceful man. Would he have fared any differently than his peers under the institution of slavery? Everett’s answer to this hypothetical is a resounding “NO.”

Everett uses this device to plunk his reader right down in the midst a bizarre culture where pejoratives like the “n word” and “boy” are common. Where harsh beatings are administered for the pettiest of offenses—even for no particular offense. Just for the hell of it. Where slaves must fain ignorance in their language and mannerisms while deferring to Whites at all times. Where rape is treated as incidental. Where family separation is just another business transaction. And where resisting or running away is treated as a capital offense. Under such conditions, why would any reasonable White person not fear revolt?

All of this is wrapped up in a crackling good yarn filled with action, suspense, and lots of truly interesting characters. James, as he prefers to be called presumably because he views Jim as demeaning, is the protagonist this time. Huck plays only a secondary role in this story. He disappears about halfway through and only returns in the end when Everett provides him with a truly astonishing plot twist.

Although containing a touch of humor—mostly at the expense of the White overlords, reading this novel as anything but a horror story would be a mistake. This truly grim portrayal of America’s greatest shame has much more in common with Shelly’s “Frankenstein” than it does with the Twain classic. Not unlike Everett, Shelly endowed her protagonist with human qualities that forced the reader to identify with the injustice he faces. Though quite effective, the narrative might just give you nightmares.
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LibraryThing member Dianekeenoy
It did take me awhile to become vested in this book. I knew it would be a great book but I had to get over my dislike of "dialect" writing. Once I sat down and just kept reading, the narrative caught my full attention and I finished the book. One of the things that Ann Patchett said about the
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author, Percival Everett, was that he "is the best-known writer you might not know". I was shocked to read that he has published over twenty novels, as well as short stories, poetry, and a children's book! Look him up, you will recognize some of his books. Anyway, it's a book you don't want to miss!
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LibraryThing member bookczuk
A retelling of Huckleberry Finn from Jim's (aka James) point of view. I really enjoyed the telling of the story (though it's got some very raw moments, that fit the times in which it was written) and the authors style of writing. One of my favorite 2024 reads.

Awards

Orwell Prize (Shortlist — 2024)
LibraryReads (Monthly Pick — March 2024)

Pages

320

ISBN

0385550367 / 9780385550369
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