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If All 2009: Discussion Points for Readers of Jim the Boy

Discussion Points for Readers of Jim the Boy

The Writer & His Craft

• How does the title set the tone for the book? How does it relate to the story told?

• Earley chose a quotation from E.B. White’s novel Charlotte’s Web to serve as an epigraph. What tone does this set for the book?

• A letter serves as a prologue to the book. How does this letter, from Jim’s Uncle Zeno to Jim’s grandfather, set the stage for the story to come?

• How do the other letters included in the novel work to further the narrative?

• How does the author inform the reader about the landscape his characters are exploring?

• Why did Earley set the novel in the late 1920s?

• How do the novel’s short, declarative sentences complement the narrative content?

• What role does the setting of the novel in Aliceville (a small, rural North Carolina town) play?

• How does Earley use metaphor? How do the metaphors used to elucidate Jim’s experiences fit his personality?

• How is the element of discovery revealed through the character of young Jim?

• Discuss how the following play out in the novel and how their presence changes the characters of the story: pride, competition, racial tension, illness, loneliness, family.

• One reviewer wrote, “the story … has the stealth aspect of something intended for young readers in an innocent, less cynical time. In fact, Jim the Boy is anything but quaint.” Discuss how Earley’s prose style works to explore a more complicated story.

• Another reviewer wrote, “What the story of Jim’s happy family accomplishes is to remind the reader how much was lost when contentment became illegal as a theme [in literature] and ambivalence mandatory.” Do you agree that the content of literary stories has changed? In what ways?

• In what ways is the writing cinematic (think especially of the Christmas Eve chapter)?

• Discuss Earley’s writing style, especially his sentence structure, diction, tone, setting, story structure, and use of figurative language and imagery.

• What portions or aspects of the writing did you find most artful and enjoyable to read?

Characters & Motivation

• How do each of Jim’s uncles serve as a father figure to him? Is this enough for Jim?

• How are children portrayed in the novel? Are their thoughts and actions believable?

• Jim idealizes the three older males in his family. How does this create conflict for him in terms of his biological father?

• Why is there such a strong rivalry between Jim and Penn? What about their upbringings creates such a bond between them? How is their friendship characterized and how does it change over the course of the novel?

• How does Jim change throughout the course of the novel? How do other characters change?

• The tale is often told from the perspective of Jim, who is a boy. How does Jim’s youthful perspective affect the story?

• Jim, being a young boy, occasionally exhibits selfish behavior. How does this change over time as he grows (and if you have read The Blue Star, how does his character change as he matures into late teenage-hood)?

• How do the setting of the book (in rural North Carolina) and the time (Depression-era) reflect Jim’s character?

Issues, Themes & Plot

• What defines a coming-of-age novel and how does Jim the Boy fit that definition?

• What differentiates a children’s coming-of-age novel from an adult coming-of-age novel, if anything?

• Research the meaning of the different characters’ names. How do these names serve the personalities of each character?

• The Glass family is not “traditional” in that it consists of a single (widowed) mother and her three brothers serving as male role models for young Jim. How does this further the narrative of Jim’s coming-of-age story?

• How are different types of “family” portrayed and understood?

• Why does Uncle Zeno take Jim on the trip out of town? What does Jim learn from the episode with the horses and his first experience of the ocean?

• Jim’s mother refuses to remarry, even 10 years after her husband’s death. How is eternal and familial love portrayed in the novel?

• How are class issues presented in the novel?

• How are the complications of family relationships depicted? How do they change over time?

• How do the various landscapes become characters in the novel? How does landscape interact with the human characters and vice versa?

• In what ways is Aliceville not the bucolic setting it might at first seem?

• How do trains function in the narrative?

• Discuss the titles for the different chapters as they relate to the characters at each point in their lives.

• Why is it important for the narrative that Jim’s biological father dies before he is born? How different would Jim’s life have been if his father had not died?

• In what ways does Jim’s father haunt each of the characters?

• What is the importance of stories being told about Jim’s dead father? How does Jim see his father?

• At the end of the novel, Jim imagines his father lying dead in the cornfield. What is the importance of this scene to Jim and to the story?

• Jim the Boy is very much a man’s world. Discuss the relationship of this novel to current debates and investigations regarding the best way to raise boys, as reflected in such titles as Raising Boys: Why Boys are Different—And How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men (2008) by Steve Biddulph and Paul Stanish, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (2000) by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, and Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (1998) by William Pollock.

• What role does Abraham play in Jim’s maturing process? What lessons does he teach Jim in his few scenes in the book?

• What is the symbolic significance of the Christmas Eve scene when Aliceville first gets electricity?

• Much happens in Jim’s life over the course of the year during which the novel takes place. Much is also happening in the larger American society at the same time. What are these changes and issues and how are they reflected in the story?

• How can the last chapter be seen as a mythical journey of heroes?

• What is the significance of the final scene, where Jim sees his grandfather for the first time?

• In what ways is the world “too big” for Jim and how is that fear countered by his uncles?

Speculative Questions

• What do you think Earley’s motivations were in writing this novel?

• Would this story affect older readers differently than younger ones? Why?

• Considering the radical changes that American society is about to experience at the period the book ends, how will Jim’s adulthood be different from that of his mother and uncles?

• How has the experience of growing up in rural areas of the United States changed since the time depicted in the novel? Is there still a distinct difference between areas of the same region, such as the “mountain” and the “town” in the novel?

• How do stories function in a society and for the individual? What are the purposes of telling and retelling stories to ourselves and to others?