Old Jim can't never rest

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

"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.

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."

Sadie can remember when, as a little girl, she assisted with Jim's birth. From that moment, she felt connected to him, but Jim's mother tried to kill him soon afterward and then killed herself. That gory beginning gave Jim an aura of second sight that impressed blacks and whites alike and raised his status above other slaves. Young Miss Watson (the woman who tries to adopt Huck in Twain's story) considered him her special pet.

With nursing skills learned from her own mother, Sadie attracts special attention, too, but she must always work under the danger of a white patient raping her or dying under her care. A successful healing practice eventually stirs up resentments and rumors of her occult power.

Before he runs off with Huck, Jim and Sadie have only brief periods together - and never without the threat of deadly punishment. The plantation structure makes no allowances for marriage, paternal responsibility, or any entanglement that might inhibit an owner's convenience.

They hear rumors of Harriet Tubman's dangerous work and the legal case of some slave foolish enough to think the Supreme Court would help, but their own concerns are more basic and existential. They must decide every hour of every day whether and how to resist whatever new outrage springs from a white man's mind.

Sadie has a particularly wry take on the Christian salvation that her owners offer "on the other side." Bliss is easier for her to fathom right here. "I just wants to lay my head down on Jim's chest and never gets up," she says. "Nobody to bother us. Thats my heaven."

In a few scenes of heartbreaking poignancy, Jim manages to create that little arena of peace and comfort for them. It's not much, of course, but it's enough to convince Sadie that such love is real and the only salvation this earth has to offer. "When he leave he take all the light with him," Sadie tells her granddaughter. "But every time I thinks on him the light come back.... Everybody who love come back."

Here, finally, is the Jim we can only glimpse between hijinks and humiliations in "Huck Finn" - a man who's clever and tender, romantic and tragic. And there's just no escaping his wife's voice. I read some chapters without blinking. In her perfectly artless manner, Sadie moves through a love story that's horrible and harrowing, but somehow she arrives at an affirmation earned with her own blood. When the little objects she's sewing into her granddaughter's quilt show up in the tapestry of this tale, they illuminate what matters most to us, who have been tested so lightly in comparison.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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