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Book Review of James by Percival Everett

Guest Post by Kevin Brown

The first half of the novel James by Percival Everett follows the plot of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fairly closely, even taking parts of scenes almost word for word. And it seems as if Everett isn’t going to go beyond a few, superficial changes: when Jim is with other enslaved people, for example, they drop their dialect, and Jim can read and write. However, when Jim and Huck encounter the Duke and King, the novel takes a different, much darker and more realistic turn.

Unlike in Twain’s novel, Jim truly suffers, both physically—as several people whip and beat him—and emotionally, such as when he sees people he cares about die. Everett doesn’t only riff on Twain’s novel, though; he also pulls from writers ranging from Ralph Ellison to a variety of slave narratives, and Jim has imaginary conversations with some Enlightenment thinkers, questioning people like John Locke and Voltaire about their hypocrisy concerning slavery.

Writing is at the center of this novel, as Jim (and Everett) is the one telling this story, not a white man through the lens of a white boy from Missouri. Everett uses the change in narration to give Jim a voice, but also a name, as he uses writing to transform himself from a sidekick into a hero, to move from being an enslaved person without agency and choice to become James, a man who makes his own decisions and lives with the consequences. Everett knows this novel is only one more story, but he also knows that the stories we tell matter.

James by Percival Everett. Doubleday, March 2024.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite

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