THE BLUE STAR
By Tony Earley, © 2008
Published by Little, Brown & Co.,
Hardcover, 286 pp
Back in the year 2000, I encountered a book called Jim the Boy, a deceptively simple little tale (as if good writing could ever be simple) that left me hoping Mr. Earley would someday continue Jim’s story. I was absolutely delighted to hear that there is a new book that revisits the town of Aliceville and all the characters we came to love in Jim the Boy.
Those of us who were young during World War II will have no trouble recognizing the term that gives this book its title: back then, the family of anyone serving in the armed forces received a blue star to hang in a street-facing window of their home.
Jim Glass, who in the first book was ten years old, is now eighteen, and a senior in high school. True to his early promise, Jim is maturing into an intelligent, insightful young man, beset with a share of the usual adolescent angst, but nonetheless full of good intentions and just enough lively mischief. He has fallen in love with a classmate, Chrissie Steppe, who is half Cherokee, a fact that causes some cruel remarks from her peers.
Chrissie’s father, “Indian Joe,” is a ne’er-do-well who abandoned her mother — who happens to be the woman who long ago broke off her engagement to Jim’s Uncle Zeno. As if that weren’t enough to complicate the relationship, Chrissie lives with her mother and grandfather on the home-place (and the charity) of a man named Bucklaw, who owns a mill where Chrissie’s grandfather lost an arm to the machinery. Mr. Bucklaw’s son, Bucky, has claimed Chrissie for his own, declaring them engaged without assent from her. When he is drafted, Jim decides to make a play for Chrissie.
Jim’s family owns three houses in downtown Aliceville. His widowed mother and he live in the middle one with Uncle Zeno. The twins, Uncle Coran and Uncle Al (both bachelors), live in the houses on either side. Mr. Earley does not romanticize or explain this unusual family setup; it’s simply a given in Jim’s life, and it functions better than many families one may have known.
This lovely book is more than just evocative of the early days of World War II. It rings true in every way. It also resonates with the doubts and exhilarations of every adolescent on the brink of adulthood. It is a love story and a dramatized bit of history, and a joyous gift to the reader.
THE LIFE OF THE SKIES
by Jonathan Rosen, © 2008
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Hardcover, 300 pp.
Birdwatching is an activity that doesn’t necessitate having much equipment. If you’re going into the field, you might want to take along a bottle of water and a pair of binoculars. You may want also a good camera. But most importantly, you’ll need at least a couple of books to identify the birds you see. A trip to your local bookstore will probably reveal an impressive number of volumes on the shelves devoted to birding.
Jonathan Rosen’s The Life of the Skies deserves its spot on those shelves, but you could also place a copy or two in the Philosophy section, or the Natural Sciences area, or even in the Poetry nook. This erudite little volume is not a quick reference guide, nor is it a how-to manual, although one may certainly infer the latter in Rosen’s descriptions of his own adventures. But let the man speak for himself:
“Birding for me is a kind of intermediate term, a place where poets and naturalists, scientific seekers and religious seekers, converge....This book offers no grand syntheses. It is a book about birds, the impulse to watch them, the impulse to capture them in poetry and in stories ... Birdwatching is intimately connected to the journey we all make to find a place for ourselves in a post-Darwinian world. This book is my journey.”
And a fascinating journey it is. The prologue alone is worth the price of the book. Rosen’s full title for this essay is: “Prologue (Biophilia).” The parenthetical term is a word coined by the great biologist Edward O. Wilson, and it means “to affiliate with nature in order to be happy.” Rosen links our desire to watch birds as coming from a time when apprehending the natural world was a matter of life and death, or as he puts it, “what could be eaten and what could eat us.”
From this auspicious beginning, Rosen wanders — sometimes far afield — through accounts of his own birding adventures. The journey includes large asides for history (everyone from King Solomon to Teddy Roosevelt) along with pertinent quotes from poetry and literature.
His own writing occasionally verges on the awkward. It is, however, never less than passionate, and the reader can forgive the occasional misplaced preposition or the “sentence” that is really a fragment, as in the following:
“I think many birdwatchers carry an unspoken hope in the heart: not to be in a world where everything is preserved, but to be in a world where nothing needs to be preserved. To feel that watching birds is not an artificial pursuit but a natural one. Because for so many eons of our evolutionary history, nothing in nature had to be preserved. It was our own preservation that we spent all our time and energy on, not the preservation of the world around us. It took all we had just to dent the wilderness a little.”
Forget about your ninth grade English teacher. What the man says makes the rules seem nowhere near as important as the transcendent message.