1941, book review, high school, historical fiction, literary fiction, love, North Carolina, Pearl Harbor, poverty, race prejudice, romance, rural life, sex, social prejudice, Tony Earley
Review: The Blue Star, by Tony Earley
Little, Brown, 2008. 304 pp. $15
Autumn 1941 sees Jim Glass begin his senior year of high school in Aliceville, a tiny town in rural North Carolina. Though aware of war that has yet to involve the United States, and therefore him, he’s more focused on his love life. Having recently broken up with Norma Harris, the prettiest girl in the school, because she’s a know-it-all and won’t kiss him, Jim falls hard for Chrissie Steppe, part Cherokee and wholly mature for her age, which Jim isn’t.
She’s also the girlfriend of Bucky, a boy who graduated the previous year and joined the Navy. Bucky’s father employs Chrissie’s family, which, in his case, also means he controls them. By all accounts, Bucky takes after his father, though with a little more polish. Jim knows him as a selfish former baseball teammate, and rumor has it Bucky assumes Chrissie to be his property; her feelings don’t matter.
The Blue Star is a sequel to the delightful, warm-hearted Jim the Boy, which depicts the protagonist at age ten, trying to understand the father who died the week before he was born. The boy’s three unmarried uncles do their best to teach him life lessons and spring him, when they can, from the shackles of his overprotective, widowed mother.
In The Blue Star, they’re much the same, not taking themselves too seriously and attempting to pass that attitude onto Jim, with mixed success. Love is one thing a mentor can talk about all he likes; it’s the boy himself who’s got to get a grip on that slippery, elusive dynamite. Mama doesn’t make it any easier. She was certain that her beloved only child would marry Norma — apparently, in these parts, teenage romance is an immediate prelude to marriage — and can’t stop meddling to save her life.
As he did in Jim the Boy, Earley sets his scenes and emotional challenges in effortless, evocative prose. Consider this moment in history class, where Jim, who sits right behind Chrissie, ignores what their teacher’s saying about the explorations of the conquistadors:
He studied instead, with a scholar’s single-minded intensity, the way the light reflected off Chrissie’s black hair. The day before, Jim had noticed that when the sun hit it just right, it sparkled with the deep colors of a prism hanging in the window of a science class. . . . He studied it so closely that his eyes slipped out of focus and the scale of the room swelled in an instant and became immense around him; he felt suddenly microscopic, a tiny creature swimming in a drop of pond water. At that moment Chrissie’s hair seemed to take on an infinite depth; it became a warm, rich space into which it suddenly seemed possible to fall and become lost.
Physical attraction becomes scientific and heroic at the same time, a search for unheard- of riches.
Jim worries about Bucky and his nasty, irascible father, but makes his pitch anyway. He has the sense to ask questions rather than blather about himself or preen, but he often blunders. He doesn’t always know which questions can hurt, or why, or how they sound to a girl who’s shunned for her race and her poverty. Earley’s approach to race in both novels bears a subtle touch; social barriers are so obvious, they need no explanation. Consequently, Jim, from a comfortable white family that insists on outward respect for all (yet still obeys societal rules without question), has never encountered the pressures Chrissie faces daily, nor has he even imagined them.
To his credit, however, when someone points out that if he married Chrissie, his children would be one-quarter Cherokee, he retorts that it doesn’t matter — they’d be half Chrissie’s. And when Chrissie and Jim click in funny, poignant flights of fancy, he’s subsequently bewildered to find their connection appears to have indelible limits. He believes with all his heart that Chrissie cares for him; why isn’t that enough?
Early captures youthful love in all its pains and awkwardness. Reading it, I winced in recognition several times, and I imagine others would too. Earley doesn’t protect his hero — Jim can be pigheaded, jealous, and selfish — but he has a good heart. True to life, he learns most when he can see past his self-regard, which, among other instances, makes him realize there’s more to Norma than he knew.
Bucky’s posting to Hawaii, this place called Pearl Harbor, feels portentous. Even so, Earley redeems the clunky plot device, for the emotional effects move his characters in unexpected ways, further proof that “no — and furthermore” need not rest on a plot point. The inner journeys of these characters, major or minor, count for everything.
The Blue Star is a marvelously colorful yet understated exploration of love, duty, sex, social prejudice, and what it means for a boy to become a man. I heartily recommend it, as with its predecessor, Jim the Boy.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.