A friend recently put this novel, published fifteen years ago, back in my hands. It has brought me more peace than anything else lately, and this seems a good time and reason enough to mention it.
Jim the Boy tells the story of a boy growing up in the tiny hamlet of Aliceville, North Carolina, during the Depression. His father died young, and his mother is raising him with the help of her three unmarried brothers who live close by. His grandfather, the fearsome bootlegger Amos, looms mythical and larger than life until the boy finally meets him late in the tale.
This book is in part about childhood’s mysteries. Why do you feel ashamed when you do certain things, even though no one told you to be ashamed? Why do you feel jealous of your best friend, whom you also love? Why do bad things happen? What is that large stretching feeling in your heart when you see someone suffer?
There are no easy answers to these questions. In asking them, Jim’s eyes are slowly opened to the love, kindness, cruelty, beauty and pain all around him and inside him. Jim the Boy is a book about one of the greatest tasks we all undertake: coming to understand those around us and to see the world through their eyes, not only our own.
Jim the Boy glows with a simple and pure light on this theme – and also shines a gentle and true light on a specific time and place. I’ll share one passage. Electricity has come at long last to Aliceville. It is after midnight, and Jim and the uncles have walked up to the highest point in town, the schoolhouse at the top of the hill:
Jim climbed up on the steps and looked down into Aliceville as if he were a prince and the town was his kingdom. Soon he felt weighted by a prince’s worries. The brightness of the few lights burning in Aliceville only magnified the darkness that still surrounded the town. The uncles’ electric lights drew fragile boundaries around their houses; around those boundaries a blackness crept that suddenly seemed as big and powerful as God. Jim had never noticed the darkness before. He felt on the verge of knowing something that he didn’t want to know. He jumped off of the steps to be closer to the uncles.
Uncle Zeno dropped a heavy hand onto Jim’s shoulder.
“Home looks different now, huh, Doc?” he said.
Jim forced himself to keep smiling; he willed his eyes to stay wide. He didn’t want to disappoint the uncles.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “It sure does.”
A town just lit up by electricity is – come to think of it – much the same as a child growing up. I can’t think of anyone who finds as much grace in it as Tony Earley in Jim the Boy – or who gives as much peace to a reader in a busy, harried world.
* * *
Thank you, Paul Vasterling, for loaning me your copy of Jim the Boy and reminding me of its quiet, lyrical beauty. Paul is the CEO and Artistic Director of Nashville Ballet. For Paul’s interview at Bacon, please click here.
Be on the lookout for Tony Earley around town! He has taught English at Vanderbilt since 1997 and currently holds the Samuel Milton Fleming Chair in English. Earley’s latest collection is Mr. Tall: A Novella and Stories. For Carolyn Hall’s review at Bacon, please click here.