With a magic wand of words, Silas House casts his readers into the mind of a 10-year-old boy, Eli Book. This is the age when a child’s experiences begin to inform his life and his emotional makeup jells. Eli’s formative period is 1976, at the end of the Vietnam era, when all of America’s values were also being realigned.
The setting is in rural Eastern Kentucky, and House writes memorable characters, those we can admire and care about. Eli sees that his parents are obviously still in love, although both suffer from the flashbacks of the war that torment his father. He is in distress as his sister rebels, yet he does not immediately know the reason. His best friend Edie also has traumatic changes as her parents divorce during this time. Eli learns what their friendship is worth and how to preserve it.
One of the most interesting characters is Eli’s Aunt Nell, who moves in with his family. Her life is troubled and her protest of the Vietnam War has driven a wedge between her and her brother, Eli’s father.
Nell brings milk crates of her records and a record player, and Eli becomes a fan of her music. The songs mentioned in the text bring the spirit of the times and Nell’s dichotomy into focus: the old-fashioned folk music of the Carter Family, remembering values she and her brother share; and appreciating no less, Bob Dylan’s anti-war song, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” From Nell, Eli gathers information from another mind-set, something else to contemplate during his pivotal summer.
An illustration of this remarkable period is during the small town’s 4th of July celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. The huge showers of colors from the exploding fireworks are a foreshadowing of the traumatic changes about to occur within Eli’s family.
Observing the happy crowd, Eli wonders how people feel, not embracing the war, ignoring the vets—the outward symbol of the hated war—yet still proud of being American. “I like to think that everyone was filled with a brief melancholy, a moment in which we took into account everything we had, and appreciated it all … [including] the freedom that had been taken from others for our gain.”
House’s voice is like a lullaby, a mountain stream flowing over rock beds. He takes the reader into the setting: “There were only the cicadas and crickets, a little breeze that slithered through the valley and set the chimes to ringing out a bit.” Reading his introspective passages is like going into a trance, going deeply into yourself where you don’t often linger because it conjures so much feeling. This ability is why Silas House is beloved by all those who read him and know him.
Eli the Good is a remarkable book for the child in us and for the adults we become.
Mary Popham is a writer who lives in Louisville. She earned a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding University.