It's been seven years since novelist Tony Earley introduced readers to Jim Glass and his small North Carolina town of Aliceville in the acclaimed novel Jim the Boy. Now, it's a pleasure to report that Jim has returned as a young adult in Earley's quietly moving, elegiac sequel, The Blue Star.
This chapter of Jim's story begins in the fall of 1941 and spans his senior year at Aliceville High School. Life there still proceeds at a pace that's as elemental and unvarying as the seasons. But in this year, the shadow of World War II darkens the town as teenage boys contemplate the prospect of trading a high school diploma for a military uniform before summer arrives. "Bucky" Bucklaw, the son of one of Aliceville's more prominent families, already has enlisted in the Navy and finds himself stationed at Pearl Harbor. Jim becomes infatuated with Chrissie Steppe, Bucky's girlfriend. Jim struggles to reconcile his intense attraction to Chrissie with his barely suppressed wish that Bucky not return from the war alive. That tension provides the novel's dominant theme and defines Jim's growth and change.
It's refreshing to see that Earley's writing has lost none of its elegant simplicity. What makes The Blue Star such a rewarding contribution to the coming-of-age genre is the author's skill in crafting a vivid and yet fully plausible interior life for his protagonist. And every character, from Jim's bachelor uncles to his ex-girlfriend Norma, contributes depth and richness to the story.
As the novel ends, we sense that for some, like Jim's best friend, Dennis Deane, who's married his pregnant girlfriend and now grimly sweeps floors in the cotton mill, any hope of life beyond the lovely but painfully limited world of this serene North Carolina valley has disappeared. But for Jim Glass, life, in all its beauty, terror and uncertainty, feels like it is just beginning, and we readers can only hope we'll be fortunate enough to see him emerge someday into the full flower of adulthood.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.