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Book Review: The Blue Star

The Blue Star
By Tony Earley
Little, Brown and Company, 2008

Words such as “unassuming” and “humble” are likely to attach themselves to Tony Earley’s second novel, The Blue Star, and these words are accurate—if, by humble, one means Earley’s ability to put his ego aside and simply tell a moving and memorable story. This novel is about the adolescence of Jim Glass (who first appeared in Jim the Boy, although you don’t have to have read that to enjoy The Blue Star), a charmed and charming high school upperclassman in a North Carolina small town in 1941. Jim’s life is overturned when he falls in love with Chrissie Steppe. Chrissie’s background is predictably messy for Jim—she lives in the mountains, which is also a way of saying that she’s poor—and in their tangled courtship, Earley beautifully captures the hyper-perceptive thrill of young love:

Beside the house stood a black walnut tree already devoid of leaves, save for a few yellow stragglers clinging to the topmost branches. The upstairs window of the house was open to the weather, and one of the tree’s limbs reached through it as if feeling around for the lock. Jim imagined that the house, or someone or something inside it, was listening to them as they approached, and he caught himself stepping through the weeds as quietly as possible, almost tip-toeing. He stopped on the top step and checked the soundness of the porch before venturing onto it. When Chrissie stepped onto the porch behind him, the boards creaked deliciously, and he felt gooseflesh scamper up his arms.

But Earley is just as tactilely alert to the birth pangs of adult responsibility, and it’s a tragedy—the death of another student—that brings out some of Jim’s most mature perceptions:

They drove toward the mountain beneath one of those winter skies that made Jim wonder why he didn’t study it more, why he didn’t bother to learn why and when the planets made their appearances, and the names of the constellations. So vivid and bright were the stars that the great mechanisms which moved them across the sky seemed almost understandable while remaining incomprehensible, like a familiar Bible story read aloud in a foreign language, or the ticking guts of a watch.

World War II darkens and accelerates Jim’s coming-of-age, yet the The Blue Star remains to its touching end grounded in its characters, committed to illuminating true feelings with a simple tale. It may be a humble book, but it’s also a triumph.

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