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Revisiting Huck with James

I’m Traci Brimhall for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club’s Summer Reading List.

I haven’t revisited the story of Huck Finn since I read it in high school and watched my brother play the irascible Tom Sawyer in a school musical. I figured I knew all I needed to know about that story—that Huck (like Tom) got into shenanigans until the shenanigans got serious and he faked his death to run from his abusive father, and on that run, he ran into an enslaved man, Jim. They pair up and head north on the Mississippi River, and wouldn’t you know it, even more shenanigans ensue.

That’s the story I knew until I saw the novelist Percival Everett had written the Pulitzer Prize finalist novel James—the classic Mark Twain story told from the other protagonist. Percival Everett—whom you may know as the author of Erasure, which became the motion picture American Fiction in 2023–retells the classic novel by first reintroducing you to familiar moments and characters—young Huck and his classic childhood pranks, Judge Thatcher, an enslaved man named Jim—or James—hearing he will be sold and separated from his wife and daughter. While the original story was a sort of American Odyssey meets coming-of-age tale as Huck and Jim encounter various adventures on their journey up the Mississippi, Everett’s version of events almost makes the story half social realism and half dark fairy tale. The events you thought you knew start to take on twists and gain shadow. Where the original is from the perspective of a child who is only beginning to understand the pain and the political landscape of the world he was born into, James understands it all too well—has lived it all and fully understands the risks of the journey. It is not an adventure but a quest of survival of self and family, a freedom of both the body and also the ability to tell one’s own story in one’s own words.

And likely this doesn’t need to be said in a book that features many characters who are enslaved, but there are a few moments that are incredibly painful to read, especially knowing the historical truths behind events portrayed in the book, but it’s a book of great heart and wit and humanity, and of course a retelling of the United States in the 1860’s must acknowledge the darker truths in history.

If the story is strong in your memory, you’ll love re-encountering characters and events you remember—like the Duke and the Dauphin—but the story does not fit the narrative you remember. You hear about what happens at times James and Huck are apart, James’s more private thoughts, feelings, and dreams, his code switching based on audience. Although the story becomes contemplative and philosophical at times, I still found it deeply enthralling and hard to put down. I did not see the narrative’s movements at the end, and I won’t spoil anything, but even if you know the original story well, you won’t see the plot twists coming. I know I didn’t. The story I remembered was full of a child’s naïveté, but the story in my mind now is full of edges and deep fear and profound wisdom. Percival Everett brilliantly reimagines and subverts this American classic, and I highly recommend finding yourself back on the Mississippi and upending whatever you thought you remembered about the story of Huckleberry Finn and James.


Traci Brimhall
COLIN MACMILLAN
Traci Brimhall

Traci Brimhall is the current Poet Laureate of Kansas. She's an avid reader of many genres, but her latest obsession has been reading retellings of Greek myths by authors like Natalie Haynes and Jennifer Saint. Those books help her talk to her 10-year-old son about myths, monsters, and demigods while he reads Percy Jackson. She's a professor of creative writing at Kansas State University and lives in Manhattan, KS.

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Summer Read 2024: Summer Reading List 2024 Summer ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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