Jim the Boy (Earley)

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Jim the Boy
Tony Earley, 2000
Little, Brown & Co.
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316198950

In Brief  
Selected by Granta as one of America's best young writers and featured in The New Yorker's best young fiction issue, Tony Earley now gives us a luminous portrait of a ten-year-old boy growing up in the Depression-era town of Aliceville, North Carolina:

As the sun began to set, Jim and the uncles watched the last yellow light of the day slide up the mountain toward the bald, dragging evening behind it. When the light went out of their faces, they turned and watched it retreat up the peak, where at the summit a single tree flared defiantly before going dark. A chilly breeze whipped from nowhere across the bald and flapped the legs of Jim's overalls. He turned with the uncles for a last look at the view before heading down the mountain. All but the brightest greens had drained out of the world, leaving in their stead an array of somber blues. A low fog had begun to seep out between the trees along Painter Creek. Jim jumped down from the rock and looked again toward home.

At once delightful and wise, Jim the Boy brilliantly captures the pleasures and fears of youth at a time when America itself was young and struggling to come into its own.

Jim the Boy will appeal to the readers who loved classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Ellen Foster, and A Member of the Wedding. (From the publisher.)

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About the Author 

Where—San Antonio, Texas, USA
Reared—North Carolina
Education—B.A., Warren Wilson College; M.F.A., University
  of Alabama
Awards—Granta's 20 Best Young America Fiction Writers;
  Nation Magazine Award
Currently—lives in Nashville, Tennessee

Tony Earley's short stories earned him a place on Granta's list of the 20 Best Young American Fiction Writers in 1996 and a National Magazine Award for fiction. He has twice been included in the acclaimed anthology, Best American Short Stories. The author's previous novel, Here We Are in Paradise (1994), received critical acclaim. He lives with his wife and dogs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University (From the publisher.)

Tony Earley is an American novelist and short story writer. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, but grew up in North Carolina. His stories are often set in North Carolina.

Earley studied English at Warren Wilson College and after graduation in 1983, he spent four years as a reporter in North Carolina, first as a general assignment reporter for The Thermal Belt News Journal in Columbus, and then as sports editor and feature writer at The Daily Courier in Forest City. Later he attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he received an MFA in creative writing. He quickly found success writing short stories, first with smaller literary magazines, then with Harper's, which published two of his stories: "Charlotte" in 1992 and "The Prophet From Jupiter" in 1993. The latter story helped Harper's win a National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994

In 1996, Earley's short stories earned him a place on Granta's list of the "20 Best Young American Novelists", and shortly after that announcement, The New Yorker featured him in an issue that focused on the best new novelists in America. He has twice been included in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology. His writing style has been compared by critics to writers as distant as a young Ernest Hemingway and E. B. White. One of his favorite writers is Willa Cather.

Earley lives with his wife and daughter in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is the Samuel Milton Fleming Associate Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. (From Wikipedia.)

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Critics Say . . . 
[The story] has the stealth aspect of something intended for young readers in an innocent, less cynical time. In fact, 'Jim the Boy' is anything but quaint. Mr. Earley may not have invented the coming-of-age novel, but he streamlines and reawakens the genre with this swift, lovely book.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

Tony Earley's first novel returns to basics, back to modernness in the old sense of the word. It's not a big book, just a good one -- and in this instance 'good' is higher praise than 'great' . . . A novel that does one thing memorably instead of many things forgettably.
Walter Kirn - New York Times Book Review

An old fashioned novel that perfectly captures the innocence and confusion and wonder of childhood...manner in which the story is told suggest the certainty of an immensely gifted writer...rich and satisfying, but wholesome just the same.
Chicago Tribune

The genius of a novel like this is Earley's trust in the purity of his style and the plainness of his story. Pergaps all things done very well look simple. This isn't a book for children, but I reak a few chapters to my family, and all of us, from eight uears old and up, were captivated.
Christian Science Monitor

A dazzling first novel...By the end of this book, the life of this boy and his family blaze at you like a whole town of lights.

When the book opens, Jim has never traveled more than 30 miles from Aliceville. What he doesn't know about the world would fill many, many books; what he learns during a year deftly fills this one.
Paul Gray - Time

Simple, resonant sentences and a wealth of honest feeling propel this tracing of a 10-year-old boy's coming of age in Aliceville, N.C., in the 1930s. Earley's debut novel (after his well-received collection Here We Are in Paradise) carries us, in charmingly ungangly fashion, toward its moving, final epiphanies. Quizzical, innocent Jim Glass lives on a farm with his widowed mother and three uncles, who provide companionship for the boy and offer casual wisdom on life's travails. Jim's father's sudden death at age 23 left a wake of tenderness as his legacy, so much so that Jim's mother still feels married even after his death. However, she will never speak to her father-in-law, who has spent some time in jail and is a despicable loner with a rumored penchant for illegally distilled whiskey. The stormy background Earley provides makes Jim's openness and na vet all the more haunting. The narrative develops as a series of loosely related, moving anecdotes: the tragic story behind Aliceville's name, a trip with an uncle to buy a horse that becomes a lesson in the transience of corporeal life, a race up a greased pole at a carnival that casts a new light on Jim's bonds with another boy, Jim's best friend's struggle with polio, Jim's mother's resistance to a suitor, and the introduction of electricity to Aliceville on Christmas Eve. In roundabout fashion, and in simple, often poetic prose, Earley brings his protagonist to knowledge of his identity. The dramatic and entrancing growth of this wisdom may strike some readers as overly sentimental. Nevertheless, the closure the book achieves is solid and well-earned.
Publishers Weekly

This is the story of the tenth year in the life of Jim Glass, a boy growing up in fictional Aliceville, NC, in 1934. Though well read by L.J. Ganser and nicely produced, there just isn't much novel in the container. Earley's talent for description is fine, but description alone doesn't provoke a sense of nostalgia for simpler ways, simpler times. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of character growth, not much insight into the preteen mind or into country or town life in Carolina during the Depression. So, what is it? Some short stories with a set of common characters; not much happening, no easily discernible plot. A fatherless boy is raised by his mother and his three uncles. Things happen, some of which are mildly interesting, and the boy grows a little older tape by tape, chapter by chapter. Recommended for those interested in the 1930s South or in Southern writers. —Cliff Glaviano, Bowling Green State Univ. Libs., OH
Library Journal

Though marketed for adults, this gem of a first novel features a young protagonist and the straightforward storytelling and wholesome humor often found in books for young readers. Somewhat reminiscent of Gary Paulsen's warm and funny novel, Harris and Me, it begins with Jim anticipating the double-digit status of his tenth birthday. The story is filled with the simple, but meaningful occurrences of growing up in rural North Carolina during the Depression. Jim is guided through life's early lessons by three uncles who hand out sage-but-subtle advice, unmerciful-but-good-natured teasing, and tough-but-unwavering love. There are many memorable scenes that will grab young readers--discovering how hard it is to hoe a row of corn, or win a greasy pole-climbing contest, or play baseball better than the town boys. It has episodes that are poignant, humorous and accessible to all ages, especially if read aloud. However, when read as a whole, Jim's appealingly naïve point-of-view, while wonderfully telling and entertaining to nostalgic adults, may not engage middle grade readers or interest young adults. The old-fashioned charm and nostalgia of coming-of-age in the 1930s seem constructed more for adult appreciation, and except in selected excerpts, probably will not spin the same magic for younger readers.
Children's Literature

This novel has received a lot of good press, and librarians will probably consider adding it to collections, but for whom is it meant? On one hand the story of a 10-year-old boy in rural North Carolina in the 1930s seems meant for younger readers, especially given its simple style and vocabulary. But will younger readers warm up to the episodic plot and lack of action? The care with which the boy's bachelor uncles help raise Jim might touch the hearts of adult readers. They will respond to the sentimental depiction of an age gone by, but will they be satisfied with the flatness of the characterizations? The interview with the author included in the Reading Group Guide may provide a clue to Earley's intention. He names Willa Cather, especially My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, as an essential influence in his work, and the reader can see his point. But what Cather makes resonant—the lost past, the wild American landscape, childhood in small towns—Earley makes only handsome. Jim the Boy strains for greatness, a little like The Old Man and the Sea. The book is stately and inoffensive; it even mulls over an archetype or two. Jim's father died before he was born and Jim must face up to his crotchety, reclusive grandfather and understand his mother's loneliness and need. A pleasant story of childhood in a long-ago America, this novel reminded me oddly of Bridges of Madison County, a simple story of adultery in the hinterlands. Both are small books, quick reads that give a sense that something important, elemental even, may have been said. (Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults.) —Michael P. Healy; English Teacher, Wood River H.S., Hailey, ID

Structured as a series of simple yet multilayered stories, this novel chronicles the seminal events occurring between Jim Glass's tenth and eleventh birthdays. Because Jim's father died before he was born, he is being raised by his loving but still grieving mother and her three bachelor brothers in a rural North Carolina farm valley during the Depression. The life lessons Jim learns primarily from his gracious, loving uncles deal with prejudice and tolerance, friendship and rivalry, honesty and falsehood, one's place in one's family and in the greater world, and coping with death and loss. Earley creates memorable, parable-like stories while maintaining mesmerizingly simple language and a child's emotional point of view. One story describes the day Ty Cobb passes through town on a train. Jim and his friend/rival, Penn, toss a baseball back and forth next to the train, hoping that Cobb is watching. Despite Penn's pleas, Jim refuses to loan him his mitt, instead throwing the ball over Penn's head. Running to retrieve it, Penn collapses. Weeks later, Jim's uncles drive him to Penn's mountain home where Jim has never traveled. One of Penn's legs is now paralyzed by polio. After some initial awkwardness, the friends talk amiably. When Penn falls asleep, Jim quietly walks away, leaving his beloved baseball glove at Penn's side. The stories never become sentimental or maudlin. Their deceptive simplicity and multi-layered plots allow readers of all ages and levels of literary sophistication to derive pleasure from the book. The description of rural North Carolina is wondrous at times but might put off those who prefer a snappier plot. This beautiful, slow-paced jewel is worthy of repeated readings. (Hard to imagine it being any better written; Broad general YA appeal.) — Florence H. Munat

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Book Club Discussion Questions 

1. How do Jim's uncles each play the role of father-figure? Do they make up for his father's absence? Should Jim's mother have remarried when she had the chance in order to give Jim a "real" father?

2. Both the setting and Jim's life have a simple quality, yet through each flows a more complicated undercurrent. How do the setting and era reflect Jim's character?

3. Why does Uncle Zeno take Jim on the trip out of town? What do the incident with the horses and his first view of the ocean teach him?

4. Jim's mother turned down the marriage proposal because she believed she had already met and married her one eternal love. Do you believe, as she does, in the idea of eternal love?

5. Why did Jim feel such a strong sense of rivalry toward Penn? What about their pasts and their families' pasts gave them a special bond?

6. Jim has moments of selfishness. How does he begin to take responsibility for his actions as he grows older?

7. In just one year, both Jim and the United States experienced tremendous change. How does Earley incorporate the evolving society into Jim's story? Think about education, the economy, electricity, transportation, race relations, and polio. What will Jim experience as society evolves that his uncles and mother never did? How will his adult world differ from theirs?

8. What role does Abraham play? What lessons does he teach Jim, both in the field and in the alley?

9. What is the significance of the final scene with Jim's grandfather and his two cousins? What realizations does Jim have during this scene?

10. Think about the stories that are told about Jim's father. What is his vision of the kind of man his father was?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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