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Jim the Boy    by Tony Earley order for
Jim the Boy
by Tony Earley
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Jim (the boy) is born in 1924 just one week after the death of his twenty-three year old father Jim Glass. He is brought up in the small N. Carolina farming community of Aliceville by his three uncles Coran, Al and Zeno and by a mother devoted to him but who 'pulled the heaviness that had once been grief behind her like a plow.' Jim's father was estranged from his grandfather, a mean ex-jailbird hillbilly who lives high on Lynn's Mountain. The tale opens when the boy turns ten and ends on his eleventh birthday.

More than anything else, this story reminded me of the saying 'It takes a village to raise a child'. The uncles handle the growing boy with innate kindness and wisdom, as evidenced by the childhood stories they tell when he feels bad about a mistake made on his birthday. They discuss how they got in trouble for 'baptizing chicks' (they accidentally drowned them). The black field hand Abraham rescues Jim and his friend Penn from a gang at great personal risk. When polio hits the area, even the reclusive railroad station agent tries to distract Jim with a gift. People know each other and care about what is happening around them.

The novel treats of a more innocent time, though not an idyllic one, during the period in every child's life when he or she awakens to the fact that they are not the center of the universe (leaving his home town for the first time Jim realizes 'People live here ... They don't know who I am'). Jim's world is widening in many ways. A new school has just been built to centralize education for the area, the town awaits the connection of electricity, and his uncle takes him on a trip to S. Carolina and the ocean at Myrtle Beach, where 'each wave when it crashed and broke sounded to Jim like the angry breath of God.'

The writing is often lyrical as in the twilight baseball practice ... 'The baseball in Uncle Zeno's hand is almost invisible, a piece of smoke, a shadow. The woods on the far side of the pasture are already dark as sleep; the river twists through them by memory.' There are other memorable moments, like the first day of the new school, the arrival of electricity on Christmas Eve, the account of how Aliceville was named, and the time when Jim gives away his prized baseball glove. And there are some humorous descriptions also, such as the sequence, involving distilled Cherry Bounce and a Gatling Gun, that led to the grandfather's time in prison.

On his eleventh birthday, Jim finally sees where his father grew up and, from on top of the mountain, looks down on the circle of Aliceville. He leaves his childhood behind when he realizes 'there was nothing he could do inside that circle that would matter much to anyone outside it'. Jim the Boy portrays a charming and heartwarming circle of family and friends. The tale is suitable for teens and adults alike, and I would love to see a movie.

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