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, wonderfully narrated with a perfect feel for the time and place.