Author who extends story of Huck Finn to appear in Port Angeles, Port Townsend

Sadie Watson’s love story grabs hold of the listener, literary critics say.

Like a hand reaching out of the past, her telling clasps the heart and won’t let go until after the book is finished.

The story, which Sadie tells her granddaughter Marianne as she ponders marriage, is set down in My Jim, one of the acclaimed novels by Peninsula College’s 2011 writer-in-residence, Nancy Rawles.

The Jim in the title is the escaped slave Mark Twain immortalized 127 years ago in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Rawles’ book is about the woman who loved him: Sadie, a slave who, before Jim, had vowed she’d never give herself to a man.

This is “as heart-wrenching a personal history as any recorded in American literature,” a New York Times Book Review critic wrote of the story, which immerses the reader in Sadie’s life under a brutal master, and as a healer who uses herbal medicine, a mother and a wife.

My Jim is a fitting follow-up to Rawles’ first and second novels. Her debut, Love Like Gumbo, introduces Grace Broussard, a 20-year-old caught between the traditions of her Creole family and her love for her Mexican girlfriend.

And her second book, Crawfish Dreams, is about Camille Broussard, the widowed mother of seven who is determined to open her own restaurant in Watts — Los Angeles’ “misbegotten stepchild” neighborhood ravaged by race riots — where she sees hope for renewal.

When Rawles gives four free, public presentations this week in Port Angeles and Port Townsend, she hopes to inspire people to look into their own pasts.

“I find that there are a lot of people whom history calls to,” Rawles said in an interview from her Seattle home last week.

“I would like to encourage people . . . to access their own stories and history.”

The story of one woman or man is, of course, a piece of the larger saga; Rawles urges people to look too at their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences — troubling as they may be — and consider how they fit into the story of their community.

She’s been showered with accolades for My Jim and her other novels: Love Like Gumbo won an American Book Award, and Crawfish Dreams was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection.

Her residency this week at Peninsula College includes four events free to community members:

■ Today, Rawles reads from My Jim in a Foothills Writers Series session from 12:35 p.m. to 1:25 p.m. in the Little Theater on the campus at 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd.

■ Wednesday, the novelist hosts an open class session at Peninsula College’s Port Townsend Extension Site at Fort Worden State Park, 228 Battery Way, Room D, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

■ Also Wednesday, ­Rawles gives a talk titled “The Roots of Freedom: From Belonging to Independence” at 6 p.m. in the main campus Little Theater.

■ Thursday, the weekly Studium Generale program features Rawles’ discussion of “Stolen Waters: The West at the Time of the American Revolution” at 12:35 p.m. in the Little Theater.

The novelist grew up in Watts, the section of Los Angeles known for the University of Southern California — and the riots of 1965. She came north 35 years ago to write for the Capitol Journal in Salem, Ore.

In 1989, she moved to Seattle, where she became a teacher.

“I’ve taught pretty much every kind of school,” Rawles said, adding that working with young people feeds her writing, and vice versa. She’s currently teaching a novella-writing course at Seattle University, and raising a teenage daughter.

It was her daughter who inspired My Jim, back when she was in elementary school.

Controversies had erupted in the Seattle-Tacoma area over the teaching of Huckleberry Finn in public schools; many African American parents and grandparents had been required to read Twain’s classic — in which Jim is referred to as “nigger” — when they were young.

“They didn’t want their kids to have to read it,” Rawles said. “I began to think about: What would it be like for me, or for my daughter as the only African American kid in class, reading this book?

“It made me want to give a literary response to the controversy — in two ways. One is the language,” which in My Jim is a rules-defying, deep-Southern English. The other is the character of Jim, as seen through the eyes of the mate he left behind.

All over the United States, Rawles’ novel has enjoyed rapturous praise.

Rawles, for her part, said she has also received kudos from the regular folks who come to her readings.

“The main thing people have said to me,” she recalled, “is they thought they knew a lot about slavery. But My Jim allowed them to make an emotional connection,” to the women of that brutal era.

Peninsula College professor Matt Teorey, a member of the committee that invited Rawles to be this year’s writer in residence, said she was his choice because her books face so many timeless issues: family, community, race, sexuality.

“She explores how we protest injustice, love one another, and deal with death,” Teorey said.

“She is a fantastic storyteller.”

For details about Rawles’ appearances at the college, visit www.PenCol.edu or phone 360-417-6269.

________

Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at diane.urbani@peninsuladailynews.com.

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