Sunday, March 24, 2013

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

I'm a fraud. I write children's book reviews and I'm an adult. In an ideal world children would write books for children, as well as, review those books, right? The child-adult dual audience dilemma (that's a mouthful) addressed in children's literature studies crossed my mind because the author says he wrote this book from a ten-year-old's perspective for adults, and not, for children. But I don't agree with him. The story reads like a children's book that addresses children and adults as its audience. The child appeal is throughout the pages from getting a new baseball glove, making new friends, seeing a baseball hero, and dealing with a new school, to name a few. The adult appeal is the memories of what it is like growing up, making bad choices but learning from them, and becoming a responsible adult. When Jim tries to chase away a memory he's ashamed of by repeating "please, please, please" I was nodding my head thinking of all the times I chased bad memories away in a similar fashion. What isn't going to appeal to some readers (both adult and child) is the slow pace. While the writing is gorgeous, the plot falls somewhat in the middle with the lack of tension. However, the patient reader will be rewarded by the strong ending.

Jim turns ten and on his birthday gets to go with his uncles to the corn fields to hoe. He is spoiled and self-centered but likable for it is obvious that he loves his uncles and mother. When he works in the fields he makes a mistake and tries to hide it by lying. He is also prejudiced toward Abraham, a black man. His uncle is disappointed in his choices and tells him to go home. Ashamed at first by his actions, Jim, like a typical kid, is quickly distracted by other adults that talk to him along the way. The voices of all the adults in this story care for Jim and nurture him in ways that will make him a good adult.

When Jim meets Penn at school he thinks of him as an ignorant hillbilly and doesn't really recognize his prejudice until he goes to Penn's home at the end. What begins as rivalry ends in friendship and laying aside jealousy on Jim's part. The relationship between Penn and Jim are the most dynamic and tension-filled scenes; whereas, the uncle scenes move the story forward as they show how Jim grows as a person. By the end, Jim has changed in subtle ways from self-centered to more aware of others as can be seen in his changed friendship with Penn to Abraham rescuing him from bullies to seeing his sick granddaddy. This truly is a coming-of-age story that emphasizes internal monologue over action, a start that deals with an emotional loss, and a journey into growing as an individual. Some might find the lack of action boring, but I found myself pulled along by the prose and characters for the most part.

I didn't care about the mother's story. Her characterization wasn't enough for me to be vested in her growth as an individual. I found the romance-that-never-was quite distracting from Jim's story and I was more annoyed with it than interested in it. The letters didn't seem authentic and while I found Jim's empathy for her well-done, "The death of Jim's father had broken something inside her that had not healed. She pulled the heaviness that had once been grief behind her like a plow," I could have cared less about her inability to love another man. Perhaps if she had been given more dialogue in the story or characterization, I would have picked up the breadcrumbs of her story. As is, I didn't bite; she is in the background and more like "the stray ghosts of fog" than someone of substance.

I liked how the uncles called Jim, "Doc," because like a doctor he healed their grief but the title left me scratching my head. Perhaps it is supposed to be so simple as to reflect the minimalist writing? I kept thinking of my school "Dick and Jane" primers which made me further dislike the title. At the end when Jim realizes the scope of life and death and how big the world is he comments to his uncles, "I'm just a boy." I think I would have liked that better than "Jim the Boy." Ah well. I'm probably missing something literary in the title.

Jim isn't always good and he makes bad decisions, but he always faces them either from an uncle pointing it out or something happening to make him realize his poor choice. He doesn't want to be mean like his granddaddy but he is at times whether that be to Abraham, Penn, or an uncle. When Jim asks his uncle why granddaddy was mean he replies, "All of us have got meanness inside us, I guess, but most of us don't let it come out." While Jim learns self-control, he also recognizes when he's been mean and he tries to fix it, such as with his fight with Penn. The optimistic adult and teacher in me likes a story that shows a character making good decisions. Some might find this too didactic, but I can't help myself, I like it. I also like Earley's descriptions and just when I think he's going to get too sappy, he reigns in on his prose and gets back to the story. If you like good writing and characterization, then I suggest giving this literary gem a chance.

Young Adult
Fountas & Pinnell: W
4 Smiley

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