How did I miss Eli the Good?!

Eli the Good by Silas House; published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2009 (paperback edition, 2011); 295 pages.

NOTE: This review is based on paperback copy provided for free by the publisher.  Part of this review originally posted on LibraryThing.com.

In the summer of 1976, Americans were busy planning bicentennial parties filled with parades and fireworks.  For 10 year old Eli Book, the 250th birthday of the country was a minor event in the summer that marked a turning point in his life, in his family, and among his friends.  Coming of age in a house with family secrets (some revealed, some fiercely protected) could only be endured in the company of a best friend (Edie) and a free-spirited Aunt Nell, both of whom hold their own secrets close to their hearts.  As the adult Eli looks back, he spots the turning points and blind spots that marked the summer of secrets that defined his adult life.

House tells the story as a reminiscence of an adult Eli and this style of narration perfectly suits the story.  We get to know young Eli through his adult eyes, sometimes excusing things his young eyes missed, often coloring that summer’s events through more experienced eyes.  While the story feels like historical fiction (recounting the juxtaposition of celebrating 250 years of freedom and ignoring the Viet Nam veterans) it reads like family history, like a coming of age story.  House’s most remarkable accomplishment is in his storytelling.  Like the best Southern writers, House’s prose seems like a lazy river carrying us through the deep lights and shades of a Southern family, all the while giving only glimpses of the tumultuous undertow below the surface.  For the tale of Eli, I would have gladly given the book 4 stars.  It is House’s development of place that elevates it to a 5 star book.

As I started the book, I wondered why it was considered a young adult book.  I mean, the protagonist is 10 years old, the words are deceptively easy to read, so why market to young adults?  Then the light dawned on me.  Not only is the narrator an adult looking back on his childhood, but he is also exploring the reality of family members returning home from war, with horrific secrets that haunt them.  The story is as relevant today as it was in 1976.  Families bear the burdens of our veterans.  How will we deal with that today?  Certainly, middle schoolers could read the book and get a historical perspective, but it is the young adults who can relate to Josie, Eli’s older sister who is 16 and protesting the war and testing the limits of her teenage independence.  The easy-going flow of the story is deceptive; there are so many levels of story and theme that House’s book will speak to young adults, and even some adults (my hand is up!) who were there during the bicentennial (or close to that time…).  War’s effects on families have not changed.

How did I miss this book when it was published in 2009?!?!?  Historical fiction, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, are right up my alley!  Well, let’s get the word out!  This is a book that should be read, savored, and discussed.  Speaking of discussions, there are book club questions at the back of the book.  Also, Silas House’s website includes a link to a printable copy of the discussion guide (which is from Candlewick’s site: http://www.candlewick.com/book_files/0763643416.bdg.1.pdf).

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 8-12+

Cover Art: The sun flooding the shadows under an old gnarled tree speaks to the theme of bringing secrets out of the dark.  For me, the cover is oozing with a Southern-novel feel.  The title along with the image may generate curiosity.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)


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