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This Retelling of a Classic is a Clever, Gut-Wrenching Punch-in-the-Face

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Patricia Elzie-Tuttle

Contributing Editor

Patricia Elzie-Tuttle is a writer, podcaster, librarian, and information fanatic who appreciates potatoes in every single one of their beautiful iterations. Patricia earned a B.A. in Creative Writing and Musical Theatre from the University of Southern California and an MLIS from San Jose State University. Her weekly newsletter, Enthusiastic Encouragement & Dubious Advice offers self-improvement and mental health advice, essays, and resources that pull from her experience as a queer, Black, & Filipina person existing in the world. She is also doing the same on the Enthusiastic Encouragement & Dubious Advice Podcast. More of her written work can also be found in Body Talk: 37 Voices Explore Our Radical Anatomy edited by Kelly Jensen, and, if you’re feeling spicy, in Best Women’s Erotica of the Year, Volume 4 edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. Patricia has been a Book Riot contributor since 2016 and is currently co-host of the All the Books! podcast and one of the weekly writers of the Read This Book newsletter. She lives in Oakland, CA on unceded Ohlone land with her wife and a positively alarming amount of books. Find her on her Instagram, Bluesky, and LinkTree.

Today’s pick is a retelling of an American classic that I never knew I needed, but now that I’ve read it, I don’t know how I lived without it.

Book cover of James: A Novel by Percival Everett

James by Percival Everett

This book is a retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the point of view of James, also known as Jim, the runaway enslaved man and Huck Finn’s companion during his adventures down the Mississippi River. If you have read any of Everett’s other work, then you know you are in store for a hilarious, clever, gut-wrenching, punch-in-the-face book.

When this book starts, you immediately know what the character James is about. He is intelligent and knows how to read, illegally consuming books from the Judge’s library. James is astute enough to know not to show any of his hand, carefully speaking to white folks in the manner in which they expect a “simple” enslaved person to speak. He teaches this to his children, not only the correct “incorrect” grammar but also the ways in which to speak according to social structure.

It’s clear that James has a soft spot for Huck. When James catches wind that he (James) may be sold to another enslaver, he runs away. He doesn’t really have a plan, and while understandably more than a bit panicked, he’s confident he can figure something out. Huck Finn comes along, and so now James is navigating a situation where he’s constantly having to keep himself and Huck safe while also doing the extreme code-switching he has perfected and formulating a plan to somehow liberate his wife and children.

While it is not necessary to have read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before reading this book, if you want an absolutely sublime reading experience, I suggest you read (or reread) it and then read James immediately after. I never thought I’d be suggesting that anyone read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, yet here we are.

Content warnings for racist violence (isn’t it all violence?), murder, other violence, and a host of other things that come along when talking about slavery without romanticizing it. This book also contains perhaps the funniest exchange I have ever read, an exchange that is the pinnacle of comedy, and it rendered me speechless for a good ten minutes after reading it.

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