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Old Jim can't never rest

Huck Finn's black friend had a wife - and this is her story.

By Ron Charles / January 18, 2005



"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" started offending people even before it was released. At the printer, somebody noticed that in one illustration, Silas Phelps is exposing himself to Huck. That near disaster was expensively corrected, but all the cutting and pasting weren't enough to save the novel from condemnation. The Concord Library in Massachusetts immediately banned it, and it's been banned in some places - often in many places - ever since.

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The original objections to this "veriest trash" focused on Huck's naughty behavior and speech: He lies, he steals, he says "sweat" instead of "perspiration." But the debate shifted to more substantive ground in 1954 when the NAACP objected to the novel's racial slurs and demeaning stereotypes. A number of thoughtful black critics and parents have elaborated on that charge over the years.

In 1996, the arguments flared up again when Jane Smiley wrote an essay in Harper's complaining about the racist elements of "Huck Finn" and the way it's presented in schools. At the time, I happened to be teaching "Huck Finn" at Smiley's old high school, so I read her essay with considerable interest (but no personal offense - I joined the faculty many years after she had graduated.)

"My Jim," by Nancy Rawles, a black writer in Seattle, should stir the embers of this critical debate yet again. Her new novel stems from a crucial passage in Twain's masterpiece when Jim says he plans to buy or steal his family from slavery. For Huck, such shocking talk leads to a moral revelation about the value of his friend; for Rawles, it led to her own moving story about Jim's wife.

This sort of thread-pulling has been put to effective use before. Jean Rhys rescued Bertha from the background of "Jane Eyre" with "Wide Sargasso Sea." In "Jack Maggs," Peter Carey fleshed out a reference to Pip's dad from "Great Expectations." And Sena Jeter Naslund spun a counter epic about Ahab's wife from a line in "Moby Dick." Potential readers may worry that the alloyed nature of such books gives them an academic tone, but these are immensely satisfying novels, and "My Jim" is a fine addition.

Based on research that took Rawles into practices of American slavery and stories of freed slaves, "My Jim" comes to us in the shape of a personal testimony recorded in 1884 (the same year "Huck Finn" went on sale). Sadie Watkins is an old woman when her granddaughter comes to her with the exciting but scary news that someone has asked to marry her. "What you waiting for then?" she asks the girl. "Dont worry bout me."

For the next 12 days, while the two of them sew a quilt for the girl to take into her new home, Sadie recalls the trials of slavery and the disappointments of Reconstruction. In the rich tradition of such quilts, the pattern is inscribed with "something for the healing," symbolic references to her past. It's also embedded with humble objects of particular significance: a knife, a tooth, a shard of pottery. "Gonna put something of myself in there too," Sadie says. "Long as you got something of love to hold onto you know you a person of worth."

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