Thursday, March 18, 2010

Eli the Good--a review

(This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on March 14, 2010. Check links to the right of this blog to listen to the review.)

Eli the Good, the fourth novel by Kentucky’s favorite son, Silas House, is shelved as a work of young adult literature. But the story and scope of the novel transcend this label, as House frames the events of America’s Bicentennial through the 10-year-old eyes of Eli Book. Themes like the power of friendship, the lingering effects of war, self-acceptance, and love of family--even in the face of stark disagreement--lift this account of the summer of 1976 to the level of the 1930s as decribed by Scout Finch( in To Kill a Mockingbird) or Buddy (in “A Christmas Memory.”)

In the spring of 2009, I attended one of House’s writing workshops where he shared his notion of the essential ingredients of story. A good story, according to him, must have both a mystery and a love story. By his own yard stick, House creates a memorable character in Eli, who eavesdrops his way around the shadowy adult mysteries of the Book household discovering the hidden love stories that might keep his family from flying apart.

Mysteries abound from the onset. Why has Eli’s free-spirited Aunt Nell returned to the family? What ancient disagreement with his sister still nags at Stanton Book’s heart? Why does Stanton wake the family with his screaming? And why does Eli’s sister, Josie, goad her parents at every turn? Eli hides under tables, risks the spidery space beneath the porch, and hangs in the hallways, hoping to piece together clues from the adult conversations. When the clues tantalize, but don’t quite add up, he enlists his best friend and neighbor, Edie, to help him plunder his father’s letters home from Viet Nam. The answers aren’t quite what Eli expects.

The love stories in this novel are complex and beautiful. Part of Eli’s yearning stems from the overt devotion he witnesses in his parents’ love for each other. He sometimes feels invisible to them as they exchange meaningful gazes and brush each other’s hands. Another love story exists between Loretta Book and her sister-in-law, Nell, as they revel in each other’s sisterly company and dance in the rain together. And yet another love story finds best friends Edie and Eli, confiding secrets and sharing their love of nature, in the easy pre-dawn of adolescence while Eli’s sister, Josie, suffers the pouty, full-blown drama of teenage love and rebellion.

House underscores the mounting tensions for the characters with frequent allusions to the music of the time. Eli and his mother dance to Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” Nell sings Dylan snippets sadly from the porch swing and advises the ever-skeptical Josie about which Dylan tunes will “rip your guts out,” and later Nell gives Eli the title, “Mother Nature’s Son,” a song she urges Stanton to play on the Gibson while she sings. Following this song, an explosive argument foreshadows that some mysteries will soon be laid bare for the Book family.

As usual, the characters in a House novel are presented in precise, intimate detail--from Eli’s adoration of his mother’s easy, natural beauty at the Fourth of July celebration to his horror at seeing nothing behind his father’s war-traumatized eyes when Eli casually horseplays in a thunderstorm. Important, lyrical scenes develop in nature, backed by bird call, witnessed by foxes and silent beech trees. When darkness falls, House treats us to characters’ favorite words, like “gloaming.”

“Eli the Good” is the title Nell confers upon her struggling young nephew to start him on his path to identity. Kings titled “the Good” rather than “the Great” were much more likely to be kind to their people, she explains. As she dubs him king of his backyard, the reader knows she is hoping he will grow up to be a kind man, able to face the cruelties of the world without becoming part of them. I was sorry to conclude my visit with the Books. Their mysteries and love stories--in the hands of Silas House’s poetic and musical craft--add up to one good story.

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