Eli the Good by Silas House. Candlewick Press, 2009. 295 pages
Eli Book, the 10-year-old narrator/protagonist of Silas House’s new novel, Eli the Good, dreams of being a writer. As he secretly records the pains and joys of living in a small town called Refuge during the Bicentennial summer (1976), he quickly learns that both his family and the world are plagued by uncertainty and trouble.
“There was the atom bomb, the Rapture, the possibility that I might be possessed by the Devil, the threat that my parents might one day not love each other, or me.”
So, when Eli hears the word “cancer” for the first time, he ponders the way people look when they say it and he intuitively understands that cancer “must be a very bad thing.” He also learns that his beloved Aunt Nell has it.
It soon becomes obvious that Eli “overhears” a lot. He has learned the craft of lurking and moves like a ghost through the Book household taking notes, (he even lies under the porch) listening to his parents’ conversations, eavesdropping on his sister and her boyfriend and spying on Edie, his “best friend” (a girl). In his determination to understand his father’s nightmares, he even steals a collection of letters that his father had written to his mother from Vietnam — letters that were hidden in his parents’ bedroom.
As a result, he gradually unearths a tangled knot of family secrets, disappointments and resentments including: the reason for his father’s nightmares; his mother’s secrets regarding her own life; and the revelation that his sister Jodie is really his “half-sister.” There are also the consequences of the increasingly bitter family disputes provoked by the Vietnam War and his father’s role in it.
At times, even the weather seems to reflect the changeable emotional climate in the Book household. As languid summer nights are replaced by a series of violent thunderstorms, tempers flare. The simmering conflict between mother and daughter explodes; Eli’s father becomes a “walking time bomb,” as he broods on a day in Boston when two anti-war demonstrators called him a “baby killer” — a condemnation he hears echoed in the opinions voiced by his own family. Even Eli begins to taunts Edie, whose parents are divorcing. But the storms pass, temperate weather returns and Eli continues to record the mounting evidence that his family has the strength to endure all things.
It would be an oversimplification to characterize Eli the Good as simply a “rite of passage” novel since it contains a number of other significant themes. Not only does Eli change from a callow, self-centered youth; he also develops a growing sense of the intricate web that binds him to both his family and the physical world. There is something of a paradox here since the violent and emotional encounters that threaten to tear Eli’s world apart are also responsible for revealing (and affirming) the family members’ love for each other.
In addition, Eli the Good is a celebration of a time and place — America’s Bicentennial year in a small Southern town. Eli and his family are wrapped in the warmth and security of a decade that is still full of hope and promise. As Eli consumes Zagnuts, drinks Pepsi Cola, and watches “Happy Days” and “The Waltons,” listens to Nina Simone and the Beatles on Aunt Nell’s phonograph, he is increasingly aware that he is living in a magical world where even the trees are sentient spirits (especially willow and beech).
As he rides his bike to a communal swimming hole, dances with his mother in the kitchen and reads The Diary of Anne Frank, he becomes the embodiment of a nostalgic dream; he is also the best of what America once was, and hopefully, can be again.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Readers can contact him through his blog at hollernotes.blogspot.com.)