Today’s young readers, coming of age in a post-9/11 world, should be deeply familiar with a central question of our times: what does it mean to be patriotic, to love—and protect, or protest—one’s country? It’s one question, among others, that they’ll find tenderly explored in Silas House’s first young-adult novel, Eli the Good.
At the novel’s center is 10-year-old Eli Book, a dreamy kid growing up in the rural South. It’s summer 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, cast in the shadow of the Vietnam War. Quite true to life, what might appear to be a lazy few months of bike rides and wanderings is in fact a turbulent period of self-discovery for Eli. While Eli the Good is about the splintering effect of Vietnam, both in the culture at large and on porches and in bedrooms across the country, it is also, to some degree, about “the extraordinary things [that] happen with no more loudness than a whisper,” as Eli puts it. Narrating the book from the point of view of the adult Eli, House filters the protagonist’s youthful naiveté through the age-earned wisdom of his adult self, a fitting choice for a book that is more contemplative and leisurely paced than much young-adult fare. The result is a story that’s both true to a child’s sentiment and a reflection on the beginnings of maturity.
Young Eli is troubled by the silence and blind rages of his father, a traumatized Vietnam vet who, Eli observes, is more at ease at the service station he owns than at home. “I wondered if [it] reminded him of the good parts of being at war, the way men are able to trust each other and become close in ways they might not under normal circumstances,” House writes. But in his father’s masculine domain, Eli is reticent and unsure of himself: “I felt the need to impress and often failed.”
He’s far more at home with women—his beautiful and slightly distant mother, teenage sister Josie, best friend Edie, and aunt Nell, all of whom he adores. Eli may feel alienated from the man’s world in which his father takes solace, but these women are no less powerful in their own ways, and their strengths breed curiosity, frustration, and inspiration in the boy. Eli plays uneasy witness to their conflicts, partly wanting to understand everything more clearly, partly just wanting everyone to get along. Feisty Nell, Eli’s father’s sister and a former war protestor, who has come to stay with the family that summer, plays a particularly pivotal role. With her red hair and cigarettes, she is a familiar “wild gal” sort, a unifying and polarizing presence for the family.
True to the title, Eli really is good, so gentle and admiring of his elders that at first glimpse it’s hard to see how he might court conflict. But he does have a habit of eavesdropping on conversations clearly not meant for his ears, uncovering just enough secrets to leave him yearning for the fuller answers behind his limited grasp. Eli’s snooping, if you can even call it that, is anything but malicious; he simply wants to understand and connect with his elders. But as he pushes for more knowledge, fights are erupting around him: his mother punishes Josie for the defiance and disrespect she exhibits in wearing a pair of jeans decorated with an American flag; Eli’s father and aunt are driven apart once again by political differences; and Eli, giving his own anger and confusion a misguided outlet as tensions rise, puts his friendship with Edie on the line.
Eli plays uneasy witness to their conflicts, partly wanting to understand everything more clearly, partly just wanting everyone to get along.
While Eli the Good shows how deeply, if quietly, the shockwaves of political conflict can penetrate domestic terrain, House avoids letting the book become issue-driven. Instead, what we’re left with above all is an authentically rendered portrait of a child, a boy who is beginning to understand that he is “weird,” different from his sneering male contemporaries. (They love to smash lightning bugs. He prefers to watch them flit through the night.) Eli’s weirdness is something to embrace, part of what makes him “good,” but also a burden to carry: with goodness, the burden of guilt comes easily, as an adult Eli acknowledges early in the story: “I was simply made that way: a boy who cared too deeply for everything and therefore felt that any wrong in the world was partly my fault. In retrospect I see that this is a good way to be, but it also makes for a miserable existence.” What the reader may see—what young Eli is on the cusp of discovering, and what the grown-up Eli has long since learned—is that being “good” (a good citizen, a good mother, a good father, a good child) is never black and white, and never as simple as any morality tale or media sound bite would have it. As Eli reflects, “Ultimately reality is far worse and far better than anything that either adult or child can ever dream.”
Tagged: Children & YA