Readers of Huckleberry Finn might remember the scene where Jim, the runaway slave, breaks down in tears because he's worried about the wife and children he's left behind. The poignant scene forces Huck to acknowledge Jim's humanity. Now novelist and playwright Nancy Rawles has written a slender but wrenching novel about Sadie, the hapless wife Jim was forced to abandon.
My Jim is an "as told to" story narrated by Sadie to her granddaughter, Marianne, who, unlike her grandmother, is literate and able to write the tale down. It's 1884, and 16-year-old Marianne has received a marriage proposal. The two women sit down to sew a quilt for her from bits and pieces of the people Sadie has loved and lost. There will be scraps from her mother's apron as well as "That red for your daddy. Red what they calls him. And that yellow dress I wears into the ground. . . . Black for Jonnies eyes. Brown for Jims hat," Sadie tells her. As they sew, Sadie shares the story of her life.
That story, to be blunt, is ghastly, and Rawles tells it with great power and compassion in authentic slave vernacular. Sadie's life reminds us that for every Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass, there were 10,000 slaves who didn't rise up and get away, whose lives were ground to powder, and whose only release from bondage came through death or, if they lived long enough, the Civil War. We marvel that Sadie survived with her sanity and that she's able to give her "first heart" as she puts it, to anyone. Slavery robs her of everyone she loves: her mother, Jim and their children Lisbeth and Jonnie, and several of her children by other men. Only emancipation allows Sadie to live a settled life with the gentle Papa Duban, and even that has its own perils: Marianne's father is murdered by an early version of the Klan. Yet Sadie survives. "You take that quilt wherever you go," she tells Marianne. "When you old and wore you think on me and all the others love you." My Jim is a tale of hope beyond endurance.