In 1876, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain, published a good-natured yarn about a scamp who lived alongside the Mississippi River, dreaming of hidden treasure and a life of piracy.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was an immediate hit, and Twain quickly followed it up by spinning a new yarn centered on one of the novel’s ancillary characters, the poor but kindhearted Huckleberry Finn. Something wasn’t working in either the story or in Twain’s life, however, and he put the book aside for a dozen years, returning to it when, broke and depressed, he needed another hit, and fast.

Published in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was just the ticket. It’s a book that is both canonical and popular—and, as noted novelist Percival Everett reveals with his new novel, James (Doubleday, March 19), one that invites both commentary and rejoinder a century and a half later.

The title character figured large in Twain’s book. So, too, as the story progressed, did an enslaved man named Jim. Jim runs away with Huck, hoping to reach the free state of Illinois just across the river and from there earn enough money to buy his family’s freedom. Jim proves the steady, thoughtful father figure Huck never had, and the impetus for Huck’s dawning awareness that slavery is evil.

Huckleberry Finn also happens to be at the top of the banned books list because of its frequent use—219 times, to be exact—of the controversial word that has lost none of its shock power in 140 years. The word appears with similar frequency in James—a retelling and expansion of Twain’s story from Jim’s perspective—and it’s likely to draw controversy because of it.

“I’m not afraid of any word, and no one should be,” Everett tells Kirkus by telephone from his studio in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of Southern California. “We should be afraid of intention and context. Nigger is in the novel because that’s what people say. You’re not hiding anything by replacing it with the so-called N-word, and in any conversation about literature and about racism, it’s necessary to understand that you can’t simply replace it to begin with.”

That charged word aside, James plays endless games with language. Jim has learned to read—a skill that would certainly earn him punishment if his owners or overseers knew that he possessed it. (“What I gone do wif a book?” he asks an inquisitive Miss Watson when she discovers a volume removed from its shelf in Judge Thatcher’s library.) It certainly shocks Huck, who’s also surprised when Jim sheds the exaggerated dialect Twain put in his mouth and speaks perfectly correct standard English—as does every enslaved person Huck encounters, save for the few who buy into their own subjugation.

The patois is a front, a way of disguising thought and, yes, intention from the so-called masters: “I guess I jest gwyne set dese old bones down on dis heah porch and watch out for dat noise ’gin. Maybe dere be sum ol’ demon or witch out dere. I’m gwyne stay right heah where it be safe,” Jim says to Huck and Tom, who are given to involving him in elaborate games in which he figures, as he explains, as “either a villain or prey, but certainly their toy.”

It’s a wonderful sendup, but one packed with meaning. “To slaves, especially in the African diaspora, the fact is that language is what attaches us to each other,” says Everett. “In a community of enslaved people, they have to generate their own language so that they can communicate with each other without their oppressors knowing about it and understanding what they are saying. When we’re oppressed and isolated, we create a language that’s our own, especially when we need to be able to speak.”

Jim, who calls himself James, is eloquent, philosophical, and possessed of hidden resources. He is also capable of flights of fancy. As a product of his reading, for instance, he visits with the spirits of Voltaire and Locke, both of whom had plenty to say—though not enough, as it turns out—about slavery and freedom.

Jim harbors secrets that speak volumes about not just the evil but the hypocrisy of slavery, a topic that, more than a century and a half after emancipation, is still very much in the news. James touches on many themes, but one that stands out is the myth of racial superiority, one that deludes so many people these days.

James is an homage of sorts but also a retort, one that subtly subverts Twain’s original. “I’ve always been a fan of the novel, not just because of the character of Jim but also because of Twain’s use of vernacular,” he says. “I’m also fascinated by what happens in the middle of the book, where it changes in tone. Twain left it unfinished for many years, and in some ways the rhythm is lost.”

James is a sort of accidental book, one that came to Everett from out of the blue. The idea stuck with him as he worked out some of its twists before setting the story down on paper. “I can’t remember where I was when the idea for James came to me—probably out walking my dogs,” Everett recalls. “But I suffer from what we call in our house ‘work amnesia’—I just work and don’t recall working. But once I had that rhythm, it seemed to come relatively quickly.”

He adds, “I was shocked when the idea came to me that no one had done it before. It seems particularly strange to me that no one had considered Jim’s point of view.”

It’s been a good year so far for Everett, not just because of James but also because the movie American Fiction, based on his 2001 novel, Erasure, has been both a box office hit and a critical favorite. Like that earlier novel, James seems eminently filmable. Asked whom he’d like to see in the title role—the magnificent actor Jeffrey Wright plays the lead in American Fiction—Everett laughs, saying, “Oh, I don’t know. There are so many good actors out there. I’d just like, for a change, to see the actor be from the United States. It seems that it’s always British actors playing these roles.”

But meanwhile there are interviews to field and a book tour to embark upon—and, Everett notes with a sigh, he’s managed to resist book tours thus far in his long career. All are to good purpose, for James deserves the broadest audience as it continues a necessary discussion of human rights, human dignity, and the injuries inflicted by the ubiquitous idiocies of racism. It’s a book in which Twain himself would doubtless take justifiable pride.

“Twain was a very smart man. He would understand the novel certainly, and I don’t think it would take him long to catch up,” Everett says. “I tried to write the novel that Twain was incapable of writing in his own time.”

Gregory McNamee is a contributing writer.