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My Jim: A Novel

My Jim: A Novel

4.0 1
by Nancy Rawles

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To help her granddaughter accept the risks of loving, Sadie Watson mines her memory for the tale of the unquenchable love of her life, Jim. Sadie’s Jim was an ambitious young slave and seer who, when faced with the prospect of being sold, escaped down the Mississippi with a white boy named Huck Finn. Sadie is suddenly left alone, worried about her children,


To help her granddaughter accept the risks of loving, Sadie Watson mines her memory for the tale of the unquenchable love of her life, Jim. Sadie’s Jim was an ambitious young slave and seer who, when faced with the prospect of being sold, escaped down the Mississippi with a white boy named Huck Finn. Sadie is suddenly left alone, worried about her children, reviled as a witch, punished for Jim’s escape, and convinced her husband is dead. But Sadie’s will and her love for Jim animate her life and see her through.

Told with spare eloquence and mirroring the true stories of countless slave women, My Jim recreates one of the most controversial characters in American literature. A nuanced critique of the great American novel, My Jim is a haunting and inspiring story about freedom, longing, and the remarkable endurance of love.

Look for the Reader’s Group Guide at the back of this book.

Editorial Reviews

Helen Schulman
In a spare, naturalistic style that's reminiscent of oral history (the story is largely told by Jim's wife, Sadie, to her granddaughter), Rawles covers territory Twain did not: Jim's early life in captivity, his seemingly endless struggle for freedom, his love for his wife and children, his impossible anguish upon separation. But more of the book is focused on Sadie's story, and it is, in its particulars, as heart-wrenching a personal history as any recorded in American literature.… Certainly if The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is presented to school children as their introduction to American slavery, as it sometimes has been in the past, then the deeply felt and moving My Jim would be a welcome accompaniment.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In her spare, moving retelling of the story of escaped slave Jim from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rawles shifts the focus to Jim's wife, Sadie, whose unspeakable losses set the tone for Jim's flight. Trained as a healer, Sadie helps bring Jim into the world when she herself is "no higher than a barrel." As they grow up together on Mas Watson's Missouri plantation, Jim only has eyes for Sadie, and after an informal marriage following their daughter Lizbeth's birth, they consider fleeing together. Their plans change when Mas Watson dies, and Sadie is taken by a hateful neighbor while Jim is kept on by Mas Watson's daughter. Jim finally escapes on his own, but is presumed dead when his hat is found floating in the Mississippi. After countless tribulations, Sadie meets up again with Jim, who has ventured down the Mississippi with Huck Finn in the meantime, but the pair are not reunited. Further disappointment comes after emancipation, when Sadie learns that freedom looks an awful lot like slavery. Writing in sonorous slave dialect, Rawles creates a memorable protagonist in Sadie and builds on Twain's portrayal of Jim while remaining true to the original. Agent, Victoria Sanders. (Jan.) Forecast: Like Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rawles sketches an impressionistic portrait of a secondary 19th-century fictional character. This is a skillful addition to a small subcanon and may find a place on some high school reading lists. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Not only is Mark Twain's Jim an iconographic literary character, but his role in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has also provided him with iconographic status in the discipline of literary criticism more generally. Here Rawles supplies Jim's own back story in an elegantly structured and genuinely developed fiction informed by classic slave narratives. Faced with a marriage proposal, sixteen-year-old freeborn Marianne turns to her slave-born grandmother for counsel. Sadie offers her own story of lifelong hardship, lasting love, choking losses, and hope regained. Jim was, indeed, Sadie's true romance, but the vagaries of slave holding, punishment, and banishment all militated against their marriage lasting through the fullness of their lives. Sadie tells her story in several vignettes prompted by the treasures she has kept in a canning jar across the years: a bit of clay pottery, a child's tooth, a gold button, and a bit of corncob pipe. Students reading Huckleberry Finn are a prime audience for this accessible and revealing new story, but teens who enjoy family romance or contemporary African American fiction will be rewarded and bring insight to the older text when later meeting it. Hoggatt's chapter-heading illustrations echo the narrative with visual symbols of Sadie's life and suggest to teachers and other reading group leaders possible activities to extend the experience of this text through various art and craft activities. This book is highly recommended for all libraries serving American teens. VOYA CODES: 5Q 3P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for YoungAdults). 2005, Crown, 176p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Francisca Goldsmith
Library Journal
Told entirely in dialect, this first-person narrative features Sadie, a third-generation slave emancipated during the Civil War. Sadie is making a quilt with her granddaughter, Marianne Libre, who was born free and must decide whether to marry and move away or remain with the grandmother who raised her. This inspires Sadie to tell the story of her own separation and loss. It is Sadie's story, but it is an archetypal story likely shared in some form by most slaves. In particular, Sadie recalls her husband, Jim, and their two children. Jim was sold away and later escaped to freedom with none other than Huckleberry Finn (a surprising detail that is not further developed). Sadie was later sold away from her children, neither of whom survived to freedom. As Sadie tells this story, she clearly depicts both her inner life and the details of her daily existence. The intimate and immediate nature of the narrative draws the reader quickly into Sadie's story of physical and emotional pain. Rawles won the American Book Award for her first novel, Love Like Gumbo; this new work is highly recommended for all YA and academic fiction collections.-Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Rawles turns an American classic on its head with this story of Sadie Watson, the wife Jim left behind when he joined Huck Finn on his adventure down the Mississippi. As a child, Sadie helps deliver Jim in a tobacco field. Her mother, the midwife, comforts his mother, "This baby might buy you freedom, one day." As an adult, Jim is obsessed with that freedom, but his schemes are continually thwarted. Once he and Sadie "jump the broom," he refuses to leave without his family. Circumstances change when their master, Watson, dies and Sadie and her children are sold. When Jim tries to visit her, he is caught and beaten, and finally runs away. His hat is found floating on the Mississippi, and he is feared drowned. Sadie, however, never gives up hoping for his return. My Jim is a love story. But it is also a vivid portrayal of Jim's other life-harsh at times, poignant at others. Even young adults unfamiliar with Huckleberry Finn's companion will find Rawles's tale moving and real. The author creates a heartbreaking world where farewells to husbands, wives, and children are common.-Patricia Bangs, Fairfax County Public Library System, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tale of slave life in the Old South imagines the hidden life of Huck Finn's sidekick, the runaway slave Jim. It's always risky to build a narrative around someone else's characters, but second-novelist Rawles (Crawfish Dreams, 2003) handles Twain's creations so deftly that it would be hard to imagine him objecting. Her narrator is one Sadie Watkins, an elderly sharecropper who was born a slave in Missouri. Growing up on the Watson plantation, Sadie met and fell in love with one of the field hands, a big, dapper slave named Jim. As masters go, Watson is better than most, but he's still a long way from what anyone would call kindly. He doesn't think twice about selling Jim downriver to raise some cash when his crops do badly, despite the fact that Jim and Sadie are married and have two children. Jim is a gentle soul not given to rebellion, but he runs away to make his own fate, promising Sadie that he'll come back to her and the children when he can buy their freedom. Jim's story we already know, of course, since he hooked up with a boy named Huck Finn and rafted his way up the Mississippi. But Sadie's history is just as engaging, if rather less adventurous. Passed along like a poker chip from master to master, Sadie lives through the Civil War, gains her freedom, becomes a refugee, and makes and re-makes several lives for herself down the years. She and Jim are reunited and parted several times, but there are few happy endings for blacks (whether slave or free) in the 19th century. Her hopes eventually center upon her niece Marianne, born a freewoman, who as part of the new generation has the chance of a decent life. Intensely sad but not mawkish: a very fine love story, wonderfullynarrated with a perfect feel for the time and place. Agent: Victoria Sanders/Victoria Sanders & Associates

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.74(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Jar

Chas Freeman ask me to marry him.

Take me by the hand. Take me in his arms. Lift me on his horse and jump up right behind me. Show me a letter say he got duty with the Ninth Cavalry at Fort Robinson Nebraska. Got to ride out there and chase down them savage whites and Indians.

I real happy for Chas. He so proud. But I dont wants to go to Nebraska and I tells him so. Cloud come over his face and he get real quiet.

You think on it he say. Me I cant sharecrops no more. I aint born a slave and I aint gonna live like one.

Who gonna keep the land I says. But he aint got no answer.

I comes back for you Sunday after next he say. You come if you want me. You the one I wants. Chas always sure bout everything. Me I aint so sure and I cries when he leave me at Nanna Sadies cabin.

Nanna in there shucking corn.

Why you all the way crying she want to know. You ever seen a bird crying. Here you sitting free as a bird and crying like a beatdown dog. What your name she say.

You know my name I tells her.

I knows it. You the one forget. She look at me real hard cause she mad now. What your name she say again.

Marianne. I can hardly answers. Her asking make me weep.

Marianne what. She sound like a preacher on Judgment Day.

Marianne Libre.

You Free Marianne. Got a freeman asking for your hand. What you gonna say gal.

I cant says nothing so I looks down at the floor.

What year we in she want to know.

She never know the year. She say it aint important. But she know I counts the year and she make me tell her when she mad. Nanna reckon I reads and writes and figures but Iaint gots no more sense than a lightning bug.

1884. I says it to my feet.

When you born gal.


How old you now.


What you waiting for then.

I aint crying no more but I still cant finds my words. I hates to think bout leaving my nanna. She cant hardly see but she see my fear.

Dont worry bout me she say. Your uncles gonna come round and help me with my crop. Dont bother yourself bout me none. My spirits and my songs surrounding me.

She chewing on her pipe.

But how I knows Chas the one I asks.

He sing dont he she say. Goodlooking fella and strong. Want something for hisself. Never get with nobody dont want nothing for hisself. He sing and he know how to wear a hat. I likes a man know how to wear a hat. I bets he wearing that hat when he ask you for your hand.

She light her pipe looking at me out the corner of her eye. She see with that corner. If slaves can love you can love she say. Chas love you and he want you to marry him. I gives you two my blessing.

I aint sure I loves Chas Freeman. He almost a man but I aint through being a child.

Nanna take a long smoke. She blow heavy on her pipe.

You scared to love cause you scared to lose. You want to stay here forever. Washing white folks dirty linen. Slopping they hogs. Nursing they children.

Far as I can sees it aint so different at Fort Robinson I says. After doing all them soldiers laundry I still gots to nurse my children and slop my own hogs.

I sees you still got that tongue in your mouth Nanna say. You marry you got to watch that tongue. She put down her pipe and put down the corn. She take my hand like when I was little. She pat me on the hand.

Dont make me go Nanna. I throws my arms round her neck. We stands that way a long time till the light start to leave. We aint gots no candle and not one Liberty nickel. No oil for the lamp or Indian head penny. It summer in Shreveport and plenty hot. Moon sitting low in the sky and two of us thinking bout never seeing each other no more.

After awhile I feels my nanna crying. Aint never knows her to cry. Not even when Papa Duban die last winter. His heart fail and we finds him on the floor.

Long time ago I wants to stay she say. I wants to stay and they aint let me.

She sobbing a low moan. I tries to comfort her but she old. I cant says how old now. I helps you make the crop I says. I aint wants to leave you Nanna. They gonna take our horse and plow and chickens cause Papa Duban done sign the paper. Thats why you crying aint it Nanna.

She shake her head. Papa Duban good to me all his days she say. She move away from me. Aint love make you lose everything. Life just mean thats all.

She talking real soft now. I sees her eyes looking far away. I aint cries for Papa Duban she say. I cries thinking bout how they force me to leave my husband. How they tear my children from me. All them years ago. I wants to stay and they aint let me.

What husband I says. What children. I never hears you call they names.

My Jim she whisper. My Lizbeth. My Jonnie. Been years since I calls they names.

It so hot the door standing open. Spirits come in and fill the room with the cool of they loneliness. First Nanna Sadie rile. Then she peaceful. Singing her trance song. Rocking side to side. Her hands waving round her head.

She back in slavery days. Back fore the war. Some old people talk bout them times but they grandchildren aint want to hear it. My nanna never talk bout her captive time. I scared to trouble her bout it. She mad at me for bringing back the shame of them days. But I almost a woman and I wants to know my nannas heart. Maybe its cause she thinking I gonna leave that Nanna Sadie decide to talk. Maybe she just want to tell somebody.

She fall to the floor. I runs and gets her some water and holds the cup to her mouth. Then I takes my knife and slices a peach. I puts it under her nose and lets it rest on her lips. I calls her back to this suffering world so the spirits aint carry her off. She look at me like she seeing me for the first time.

I helps her to sit and I sits down at her feet. She rest her hand on my head.

What you recall of your mama she ask.

I picks up her pipe and takes a smoke. I draws the tobacco in deep so my throat and chest burn with it. When I talks bout my mama my throat and chest all the way burn.

Her feet in shoes I says. When she leave she got her feet in shoes walking away from me. I still hears the sound of her feet.

Nanna Sadie look tired. How long it been she say. How many years since she gone away.


How old was you then.


Your mama bout that same size when them Union troops come through New Roads. All the children jump and shout. Your mama follow along skipping and dancing. And some years later when them Union soldiers run out of Louisiana she follow them again. Leave you with me.

She smell like leather and dye I says. She work for the saddlemaker and he give her a old pair of shoes. One day she just walk off in them.

Your mama born walking. You late walking Marianne Libre. Still scared to touch ground. Like the mud gonna swallow you up. It aint swallow you yet. But it hold you firm to this place. Time for you to go and your feet dont want to move. Better get you some walking shoes gal. Stop all your weeping and go on with your soldier boy. Life bound to be better in the territories. Cant be no worse. When he coming back for you.

Say he coming Sunday after next.

How many days from now.


You some good at counting aint you. Lets see what else you can do. We gonna sew you a memory quilt. Cant lets you go off to no prairie less you got your family with you. They say aint nothing like that cold wind coming off the prairie.

In the heat of the day when its too hot to move we takes to sewing the quilt. I brings Nanna pieces from the gal who sew for the white seamstress. I gathers scraps from the families I takes in washing for. They say Mary you get us another gal if you running off.

Gonna back this quilt with something heavy Nanna say. Take Papa Dubans old work clothes and your mamas old apron. Gonna put something of myself in there too. Long as you got something of love to hold onto you know you a person of worth. Only folks really own theyselves the ones know what they worth.

Go get my jar she say. I gots some things I wants toshow you.

They the things she keep inside a canning jar on a shelf above the stove. All these years I never knows why they there. Just a few small things you can hold in one hand. I feels them with my fingers. Knife so small. Piece of felt. Bottom of a clay bowl. Childs tooth. Shiny gold button. Corn pipe thick with tar.

I carries them things from a long time ago she say. From up the Mississippi I brings them. How old I be.

I dont know Nanna Sadie. Old as Grant I spects.

We gots to pray for the General she say. I be some sad when he go. You children cant never know what he mean to us old ones. I a grown woman fore I believes theys a white man want me to be free.

For more than a week Nanna tell me what grown folks scared to talk bout. Sometime her voice tremble sometime it shout. I listens to all she say. When she tell it in a small voice I leans close to hear. We cuts the squares and pieces our stories. I writes down everything she say.

And at the end of the telling I knows what to do.

Meet the Author

Nancy Rawles is an award-winning novelist and playwright. Her novel Love Like Gumbo was the recipient of the American Book Award. She lives in Seattle.

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My Jim 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A surprisingly clever and touching story that brings to life a different perspective of an old classic. From the language that sets you back into the time, to the very visual writing style of the author, although the story is written from a woman's perspective, as a man I found this book to be a most enjoyable read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Once I started readng this book it was difficult to stop..... Its a telling tale of one woman's (Sadie) struggel through slavery a tribute to one womans tenacity to endure a period of American History that should never be forgotten..... .