Tony Earley

Jim the Boy

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Jim the Boy Summary

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Jim the Boy (2000), a novel by Tony Earley, is set in 1934 and describes a year in the life of a ten-year-old boy who lives with his mother and three uncles in a small rural town. Earley often sets his work, like this novel, in North Carolina, the state he grew up in. The novel is expanded from a short story Earley wrote years before, published in his 1994 collection, Here We Are In Paradise. Earley was named one of the top short story writers in America by Granta and the New Yorker, and critics have compared his sparse writing style to Ernest Hemingway and E.B. White.

Jim Glass has just turned ten. His father died just before he was born; he lives with his mother, Cissy, at her brother’s farm in Aliceville, North Carolina. Two more of Cissy’s brothers live nearby, and together, they live, work, and raise Jim. Although they are in the midst of the Great Depression, the McBride brothers, Jim’s three uncles, are well-off. They offer employment to many hired hands at the farm, and they also run a store in town. Cissy cooks and keeps house for her brothers.

Now that Jim is ten, he is eager to help his uncles on the farm rather than playing the day away like a child: he perceives himself as an adult now that his age is in the double digits. He receives an awakening when he discovers how difficult and exhausting farmwork is. His uncles Zeno, Al, and Coran try to be patient with him, but Jim becomes tired and bored. He chops down several cotton stalks in his frustration with hoeing. When his Uncle Zeno confronts him about the cotton, Jim lies. Uncle Zeno sees through the boy and lectures him, letting his nephew know he is disappointed.

When Jim returns home, he encounters Ralph “Whitey” Whiteside, a feed salesman Jim considers a friend. Whitey and Jim observe the new school that has just been built and will open at the end of the summer. Whitey gives Jim a baseball for his birthday. Jim is delighted with the gift but upset that no one else has given him a present. Then, his mother surprises him with a birthday cake, candles, and two presents: a baseball bat and glove.

Soon, the new school year begins. Jim now attends with a larger group of boys: several school districts have consolidated into one. A divide soon emerges between “town boys” and the new “mountain boys” from nearby Lynn’s Mountain. Jim becomes the leader of the town boys because of his prowess at sports, while a mountain boy named Penn Carson becomes the leader of their group for the same reason.

The two face off in a game of baseball. The game is tied, and Penn turns to leave. In a surprising fit of anger, Jim hits him in the back with the ball. Penn is angry, but does not retaliate: he is a Quaker and does not believe in fighting. Jim is ashamed of himself, already forgetting what prompted him to hit Penn. After this incident, the boys are rivals. They argue often and compete with each other in exams, games, and school contests.

Meanwhile, Cissy struggles with her lot as a single mother. She misses Jim’s father and grieves for him. As much as she appreciates her brothers helping to raise Jim, she wishes he had a father. She addresses a letter to Jim’s father, wondering in words what is best for Jim and his future. Whitey tries multiple times to court Cissy, but she is not interested and turns him down.

One day, Jim and Penn hear that a train stopped at the local station has a famous baseball player on board. They stage a game of catch outside the train, hoping the celebrity will notice them. But soon, their rivalry resurfaces and they argue about which of them gets to use Jim’s new baseball glove. Jim becomes angry and throws the ball too hard. The ball lands in a puddle, and Penn falls when he goes to pick it up. Fear sets in when Penn discovers he can’t get back up. It is soon revealed that Penn has developed polio. The town is quarantined, and Jim is housebound for some time until it’s confirmed that he doesn’t have polio.

More changes come to Alicetown in 1934: the town gets electricity. Jim is overwhelmed and amazed by the difference. Electric lighting changes the way he sees the world. He notices the darkness in a different way when he can turn on lights at night.

Jim also travels for the first time outside of the small town he has known all his life. He has never spent much time thinking about the larger world. As he takes a train ride down to the South Carolina coast and has his first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, he begins to realize how vast the globe and its population actually is. He realizes how many people exist independently of him and the people he knows.

Jim meets his grandfather for the first time. Amos Glass, his father’s father, had disowned his son long ago. Amos lives up on Lynn’s Mountain, near Penn. Uncle Zeno writes to Amos asking him to meet his only grandchild. The old man is dying, and Jim is only able to glimpse him through a window. Amos is too far gone to recognize his grandson or acknowledge his presence. Jim thinks again of how large the world really is and talks to his uncles about it, noting that he is only “one small boy.” Uncle Zeno says that Jim is right, but adds that Jim is their boy.

Jim the Boy became a national bestseller, with rave reviews from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. The book drew praise for its ability to capture the essence of a bygone era and the meaningful connections forged between people. In 2008, Earley wrote a sequel, The Blue Star, rejoining Jim when he is a senior in high school and beyond.