I have to disclose upfront that I was a huge Walton fan
(the CBS hit run of eight years, based on the novel The Homecoming by
Earl Hammer Jr.), and thus found myself drawn to the main character of
17-year-old Jim Glass, who reminds me so much of John-Boy. So much did I
enjoy The Blue Star, that on finishing it I ran to the nearest library to
take out Jim the Boy, Tony Earley's earlier book, so I could know this
young man as a ten-year old. I was not disappointed.
I also wanted more of the bachelor uncles' wit and wisdom. Uncles Zeno, Al and Coran have helped Jim's mother raise him since his father died the week before he was born. They dispense "tough love" on Jim long before it became a fashionable term, molding this young man into a decent and responsible adult. It is a credit to Earley's writing that glimmers of the uncles' soft hearts can be seen through their seemingly tough and crusty characters.
What makes Jim so appealing are his honest thoughts. When he was ten, reviewers called him "precocious". At seventeen, and a senior in high school, he is very real. Jim is consumed with the unrequited love of Chrissie from the "wrong side of the mountain", but how can he compete with a boyfriend who had the courage to enlist and is now fighting America's battle overseas?
In addition to Jim and his family, friends Dennis Deanne and ex-girlfriend Norma are well-developed characters whose own struggles give Jim many opportunities to grow as he reacts to their situations. The only part of the book that seemed a little far-fetched was a classmate's commencement speech, "Heroes of Mathematics". A beautiful and fitting speech for a class graduating six months after Pearl Harbor, but it struck me as a bit too eloquent for such a young girl. Then again, I try to imagine a commencement speech that might have been given shortly after 9/11 and imagine that it too could have had the same depth.
With writing reminiscent of Newberry award-winning author Richard Peck. (A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way From Chicago). The Blue Star transports the reader to rural America at the onset of WW II, showing how deeply war touches the lives of this community. Although written for adults, The Blue Star has great potential as a 'cross-over' title for teen readers. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, Earley acknowledges that the Jim books are not smart, hip or postmodern. Nor are they violent, gothic or bloody. Therein lies their charm and appeal. But don't be fooled by the simple narrative. The Blue Star deals with themes that are highly relevant to teens today, such as teen pregnancy, child abuse and racial prejudice.
If you want to get lost in a book set in an authentic time and place with endearing characters, treat yourself, and any young person you know, to Jim The Boy and The Blue Star.
Tony Earley is the author of Here we Are in Paradise (1994),
Jim the Boy (2000), Somehow Form a Family (2001, stories) and
The Blue Star. Raised in the shadow of the North Carolina Appalachians, the setting of his
Jim books, Earley has been asked how much he draws on his own family life; to
which he replies, "I swiped some family stories, but there's little that
happened to me that happens to Jim".
As for the setting, he says, "There's just something wonderfully mysterious about that part of the world where the road curves and the mountains begin, the feeling that I'm in a different place now." He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is the Samuel Milton Fleming Associate Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the August 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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