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The pleasure of a good story, simply told

Tony Earley's sequel to 'Jim the Boy' delivers Depression-era pathos.

By Yvonne Zipp / March 11, 2008

The Blue Star By Tony Earley Little, Brown 304 pp., $23.99

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Tony Earley's novels are the Shaker chairs of American literature. They're well-made, sturdy tales that are stripped of excess and postmodern gimmicks, and they just might last you forever.

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His 2000 novel, "Jim the Boy," became a surprise critical darling and bestseller by taking the tools of children's literature and bending them to a book for adults. It was a brilliant idea: Adult bookworms (at least of the genus voraciatus fictionus) are constantly searching for a book that will hit us the same way the ones from childhood did, and usually coming up short.

Its sequel, The Blue Star, probably won't sneak up on people quite the same way, but that's mostly to the good. The more folks who find Earley's novels, the more happy readers there'll be out there.

In the first book, Jim Glass was a 10-year-old being raised during the Great Depression by his widowed mother and a trio of loving uncles in the mountain town of Aliceville, N.C.

In the sequel, it's 1941 and World War II is raging in Europe. Jim's now a senior in high school and reeling under the force of his first love. The object of his adoration is Chrissie Steppe, who unfortunately happens to be the girl of Bucky Bucklaw, who's stationed in Hawaii.

Jim can't stand Bucky, who was "the kind of baseball player who blamed his glove when he booted a ground ball, or his bat when he struck out," but honor is honor.

He contents himself with touching Chrissie's long black hair, which falls all over his desk in history class, and is shocked to find out that Chrissie noticed. "It's attached to my head," she replies. (When we first meet Chrissie, she's threatening to beat a smart-aleck "like a borrowed mule.")

She's got no time for romance. Where Jim has been coddled, Chrissie's life has been lived on "the wrong side of the mountain," as she explains to Jim: not enough sunshine and a chill that never goes away.

"I think you're a very nice boy," she tells Jim. "But I also think you've never learned you don't get to have everything you want every time you want it."

Chrissie's got her own reasons for staying with Bucky, and none of them have to do with love: Her family lives in a "dog-trot" cabin on the Bucklaw farm, and they've got nowhere to go if Bucky's dad kicks them off his land.