JIM THE BOY is a straightforward book: the plot, which follows a year in the life of a 10-year-old boy, has no twists and turns. Author Earley's language is clear and concise, never verbose, and decidedly irony-free. However, simple in this context is not equal to non-complex or brainless fluff. Though situated in the tiny town of Aliceville, North Carolina during the Great Depression, JIM THE BOY conveys the universal wonderment and emotion of being human.
The story opens on a sunny summer day at the McBride family farm. A hearty breakfast is being served to three unmarried brothers (Zeno, Coran, and Al) by their widowed sister, Elizabeth "Cissy" McBride. The year is 1934, and although the country is feeling the pinch, the McBride brothers are doing rather well for themselves, with a farm where they employ hired hands and a store in town. Cissy's son, Jim Glass Jr., has just turned 10 and is raring to show his elders that he is an adult. Instead of whiling away the day playing, Jim wants to go out into the fields and help his uncles work. Zeno, Coran, and Al are patient teachers, but Jim eventually tires and bores of the work, leading to a disappointment and the first of many internal discoveries for the title character.
To delve any deeper into the plot of the novel would be to trivialize it. On the surface, nothing much of import happens in JIM THE BOY. After the first summertime chapters, Jim does the thing that 10-year-olds do: he goes to school. After much local talk, the county schools have all been consolidated into one, and so Jim must navigate the social currents that separate the "town boys" from the "mountain boys." He eventually makes a friendly rival in a "mountain boy" named Penn Carson, and the two play baseball, compete for grades and prizes, and quarrel, their words and actions captured in achingly real vignettes.
As the year progresses, Jim travels to South Carolina to the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. He also goes up the mountain to Painter's Creek to see Penn and to meet his grandfather. In this year as well, electricity arrives in Aliceville. These three events utterly change Jim's perception of the world. Before electricity, Jim had never noticed the dark. He had no fear of the inky blackness until the lights came and showed him the separation between day and darkness. Formerly, the world to him was the farm, the town, and the nearby "city" of New Carpenter. Jim is overwhelmed as he considers the world that is so huge, the ocean so grand. There are places and people whose lives will never intersect with his own. This realization is both scary and exhilarating for Jim and marks his passage into young adulthood.
Adult emotions are not forgotten either. The three uncles deliver tough but unwavering love to Jim and Cissy; through their gentle teasing and subtle advice, real portraits of honest men shine. The third person narration of the novel breaks in three haunting passages through letters, one of which opens the book. The first is from Uncle Zeno to Jim's estranged grandfather, Amos Glass. In this piece, Uncle Zeno outlines how Jim's father died and implores the man who disowned his only child to come and see his new grandson. The second letter was written by Cissy to Whitey Whiteside, a traveling salesman who is a friend of the three uncles. Whitey is trying to woo Cissy, who expresses her disdain clearly. The third is also written by Cissy --- a letter to her dead husband, as she heartbreakingly decides what to do for her own sanity and Jim's future.
The book takes place in what some nostalgics would call a simpler time. But it is not a tract calling for a return to our grandparents' reality. Rather, author Earley is asking us to merely think about what connects us as human beings and to find happiness in the beauty of everyday life. The uncles and Jim's Mama are straightforward, sincere and good people, a welcome change from the self effacing and sarcastic bunch that populate more "modern" novels. The story is sweet but never mawkish or moralizing. Jim's life is free of abuse and dysfunction, but that doesn't mean he is an angel or an anomaly. He is still a real 10-year-old boy, with the selfishness and thoughtlessness that can go along with childhood. JIM THE BOY and its eponymous hero are gems, and the lessons he learns in his 10th year will forever influence both Jim the man and his readers.
Reviewed by Lillian Newley on January 22, 2011
Jim the Boy : A Novel