For those of us navigating our way through the complications of life in the 21st-century, there is a great appeal in stories that hearken back to a simpler time. The Blue Star by Tony Earley is just such a story, a charming coming-of-age novel set in the mountains of North Carolina back 1941.
Jim Glass, whose childhood escapades in the small town of Aliceville were the subject of Earley’s sleeper hit Jim the Boy, is nearly grown now. A high school senior, he is forced to confront the real world in a big way – first by falling in love, then by the threat of war.
The dark shadow of World War II hangs heavily over the entire town and provides the impetus for Jim’s coming of age. One of Jim’s classmates, Bucky Bucklaw, has already enlisted in the Navy and is stationed at Pearl Harbor. Back at home, Jim has fallen in love with Bucky’s girlfriend, Chrissie Steppe; throughout the novel, Jim struggles to reconcile his love for Chrissie with his (barely) repressed wish that Bucky just never comes back.
Meanwhile, the reader becomes acquainted with a host of characters from Aliceville - Jim’s bachelor uncles, his former girlfriend Norma, his goofy buddy Dennis Deane (who at novel’s end has been consigned to marrying his pregnant girlfriend and sweeping floors at the mill), even his car, affectionately named The Major, each adding another ingredient to the richness of the story.
Earley’s writing, while simple and unaffected, is also warm and evocative, with a gentle humor befitting the time and place.
“What Jim really wished was that he was going to the dance with Chrissie. They would dance for a while - only with each other - and when Mama and the uncles went home, he would drive her through the fields down to the river. On the way, she would scoot up close beside him and he would hold her hand-except when he had to change gears. (Maybe though, he could put his arm around her and work the clutch and she could change the gears.) At the river, they would cuddle up in the rumble seat beneath a blanket and listen to the water and look at the stars. Chrissie’s nose would be cold and he would feel it on his cheek when he kissed her.”
What is most appealing about this novel is the way Earley illuminates those fundamental truths that ring true in every reader’s heart no matter your age or sex. The value of home, family, love and honor, the importance of treating people fairly, the satisfaction that comes from doing your duty and the joy derived from the simple pleasures of life. Small-town values, perhaps, but worth resurrecting in these somewhat chaotic and troublesome times.
For all its charm, though, life in Aliceville can be severely limited. There are two choices: either you’re a farmer or a millworker, otherwise known as a “linthead,” a derogatory term which conveys volumes about the status of this occupation. By novel’s end, the portent of war has settled heavily over Aliceville, and the reader senses the ways life will change – not only for Jim as he embarks on this final portion of his journey into manhood, but for everyone else in town as well.
Hopefully, Earley will allow us to see what happens next.