The pains and pleasures of childhood are highlighted in this month’s column. Bill Brooks reviews Jim the Boy, by Rutherfordton native Tony Earley, and storyteller Marcianne Miller reviews children’s audiobooks — for adults.
Quote of the month
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that it all happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.
— Ernest Hemingway
Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley (Little, Brown & Company, 2000, 227 pages, $23.95).
Everything that happens in Jim the Boy seems truer than if it had really happened. And even as you read the book, you feel that everything young Jim Glass experiences and learns is happening to you — and indeed belongs to you. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’ll venture this projection: Jim the Boy will become a classic. This is a book that should be mandatory reading in every grade school, high school and writing class in the country. Jim the Boy is pure Americana in the way that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is pure Americana — only sans the dark undertones. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if readers were still reading Jim the Boy 50 years from now, the way they read Twain’s great novel.
It would be a shame if they weren’t.
From the very opening paragraph, we hear the poet’s voice in the prose’s rich resonance: “During the night something like a miracle happened: Jim’s age grew a digit. He was nine years old when he went to sleep, but ten years old when he woke up. The extra number had weight, like a muscle, and Jim hefted it like a prize.” It only gets better.
We soon learn we are in the town of Aliceville, N.C., during the Depression, and we also learn that Jim Glass’ father died in a cotton field just before Jim was born. But the boy is not without male guidance; he has three wonderful, fatherly uncles to help him: Zeno, Coran and Al, brothers of Jim’s mother and “tall skinny men with broad shoulders and big hands” who contribute their wisdom, wit and compassion to Jim’s raising.
In one especially moving chapter, Uncle Al and Jim go take their first look at the ocean. After an interesting journey, they stop in sight of the water and watch as the “waves lined up and bore down on a wide, white beach like a gang of boys intent on jumping a gully. Each wave rose up and took a running go and rushed toward South Carolina and cast itself down on the sand. And each wave when it crashed and broke sounded to Jim like the angry breath of God.”
Jim and Uncle Al study the ocean from a modest distance, with Al advising: “We probably shouldn’t get in that water, Jim. We don’t know anything about that water.” To which Jim replies, “I’m not going to.” But ultimately the temptation overcomes them, and they take off their shoes and socks and roll up their pant legs and stand ankle-deep in the strange, warm water where “a fish no bigger than a thought swam by his [Jim’s] feet; when he wiggled his toes it vanished as if made of light. In the water he could feel the river that flowed through the uncles’ fields. Maybe Uncle Zeno or Uncle Coran had looked at the river that morning. Maybe they had wet a bandanna in its water and wiped the sweat off their faces. Jim held on to Uncle Al’s hand and closed his eyes and tried to feel Belgium. He tried until he grew dizzy and felt the water writing strange words on his feet. But when he opened his eyes all he saw was the ocean, the strong water rearing up.”
The prose is as simple and swift as a swallow in night flight, as smooth and solid as the new baseball Jim gets for his birthday. It’s not hard to feel Tony Earley’s first love, poetry, directing this book — his gifted use of metaphor and simile are planted like crop seed on every page. Jim the Boy is a book you cannot lift your eyes from; one literally feasts on the harvest of words, the language as lyrical as a private lute played deftly and soulfully for the reader.
And yet for all its sweet charm, this book is not saccharine. Jim endures some tough times along the way, among them his failed attempt at working in the fields with his uncles and the other men; watching his mother get courted by salesman Whitey Whiteside; and meeting his dying grandfather for the first time (a cruel man with a dark history), in hopes of finding out more about his father. Most poignantly, Jim learns a lesson about friendship and selfishness that concerns something as simple as a baseball glove, yet becomes as important as life itself.
It would be easy, with Jim the Boy, to draw comparisons to Catcher in the Rye and, as I’ve already done, Twain’s Huck Finn, plus other classics that explore boys, men and the meaning of life. But in truth, it would be unfair to compare Jim the Boy to anything else ever written. It has the wholesome, coming-of-age feel of Charlotte’s Web and the literary finesse of To Kill a Mockingbird — yet it is something else altogether.
In conclusion, all I can say is, read Jim the Boy for yourself and see if, afterward, it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. And if it does, then you know that Tony Earley gave his reader what he should have given, and that he is, in Hemingway’s sense, a true writer.
Tony Earley was born and raised in Rutherfordton, N.C. He graduated from Warren Wilson College, earned an M.FA. at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and is now an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University. Earley’s first book, a collection of short stories called Here We Are In Paradise (1994), earned him much critical acclaim. He states that he wanted his first novel to be a book that “even his grandmother could read without blushing” (something she might well do upon reading some of his short stories). Earley reads at Malaprop’s on Thursday, July 13, beginning at 7 p.m. Call 254-6734 for more info.
Grandfather Mountain, a Profile, by Miles Tager (Parkway Publishers Inc., 1999, 109 pages, $14.95).
This compact tome manages to cover just about everything anyone could want to know about Grandfather Mountain, one of the oldest peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains (which, in turn, are among the oldest mountains on earth). Miles Tager sure knows a lot about this mountain — he lives at the base of it, in Linville, N.C. — and is wont to tell us about it. The book explores every aspect of this ancient rock: geological features, flora and fauna, wildlife, and its chain of human history. One of the more eye-opening notations holds that Daniel Boone often visited and hunted on the mountain, keeping several rough cabins in the vicinity. The author’s love of the venerable hill is most memorably reflected in what he chooses to reveal about it, and how. (In addition, there is visual stimulation, in the form of several very nice color plates, some taken by the author.)
This is a book one could — no, should — throw in a backpack and take with them on a visit to this famous peak. Read the book, view the mountain and gain a much more complete and compelling experience all around.
Grandfather Mountain is in the extreme northwestern section of North Carolina, near the Tennessee border and just south of Boone.
[Miles Tager is a staff writer and editor at the Mountain Times in Boone.]
• Author Tom Kerr and photographer Gail Forsyth-Kerr will discuss their new book, The Underground Asheville Guidebook, at Malaprop’s Friday, July 7 at 7 p.m. Call 254-6734 for more info.
• Malaprop’s will host a Harry Potter Party to celebrate the latest book in the popular series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The event takes place Friday, July 7, beginning at 11 p.m. (books go on sale at 12:01 a.m. July 8).
• Children’s Story Hour, hosted by Catharine Sutherland, takes place at Malaprop’s Saturday, July 8 (10 a.m.).
• Abigail De Witt will read from her new novel, Lili on Saturday, at Malaprop’s Saturday, July 8 (7 p.m.).
• Ralph Grizzle will discuss his book Remembering Charles Kuralt at Malaprop’s Sunday, July 9 (3 p.m.).
• Tony Earley will read from his novel, Jim the Boy, at Malaprop’s Thursday, July 13 (7 p.m.).
• Martin Clark will read from his new novel, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, at Malaprop’s Friday, July 14 (7 p.m.).
• Cafe of One’s Own (women’s poetry readings) is hosted by Mendy Knott at Malaprop’s Saturday, July 15 (8 p.m.).
• The Writer’s Workshop sponsors author and tree-house dweller Sam Edwards — described as “a cross between Huck Finn and Hunter S. Thompson” — who’ll give his lecture “The Writing Life: Up, Down and Sideways” at the Haywood Park Hotel Saturday, July 15, beginning at 9 a.m. Edwards will appear at Books-A-Million from 3-5 p.m. that afternoon. Call 254-8111 for more info.