Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Eli the Good

I just finished the best book I've read in the last year or two—and I've read some good ones. Silas House's Eli the Good is exactly the kind of book I relish. It was published by Candlewick in September 2009, but I only recently acquired a copy.

The introduction for Elie the Good is the first four lines of a poem—May Swenson's "Centaur"—that I've loved since I discovered it in an English anthology I used when I taught junior high:

The summer that I was ten—
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten? It must
have been a long one then—

In the summer of 1976, ten-year-old Eli Book, who lives in the small southern town of Refuge, looks forward to the country's bicentennial. The opening two sentences preview the whole book and summarize the events of that summer:

That was the summer of the bicentennial, when all these things happened: my sister, Josie, began to hate our country and slapped my mother's face; my wild aunt, Nell, moved in with us, bringing along all five thousand or so of her records and a green record player that ran on batteries; my father started going back to Vietnam in his dreams, and I saw him cry; my mother did the Twist in front of the whole town and nearly lost us all. I was ten years old, and I did something unforgiveable. (p. 3)

How can anyone not keep reading after that beginning? I couldn't. I read the book in a day and a half. I liked it not only for the believable story and well-developed characters, but also for the setting, the theme, the recurring motifs, and House's lovely lyrical style. 

According to House, "This book is about the powers of friendship and the joy of accepting yourself as you are. It's also how people can get through struggles if they have hope and the love of others, and most important, it's about the fact that we don't always have to agree with the ones we love. . . ."
Some of my favorite passages—or at least ones I dog-eared the page to mark because they ring so true—are these:

"Country people sure do have more stars than anybody else," she said. "We ain't got much, but we got the stars." (p. 44)

Ultimately reality is far worse and far better than anything that either adult or child can ever dream. (p. 79)

I liked our riverbank at home much better, as this one didn't seem real. The city workers maintained the grass along the river and had planted little clumps of impatiens around some of the trees. It didn't seem right for something like a riverbank to be kept up; wild things should be free to remain wild. (p. 173)

It's miraculous the wild places that exist in hiding. All the secret places of the world that are able to remain cold despite the hum of a blazing summer. (p. 232)

Trees were a recurring motif throughout the book, but I'll save that for another blog post.

Publishers Weekly defines the book thus: "In this YA debut from the author of Clay's Quilt, a boy's war-torn family endures a tumultuous summer.

The classification as a young adult book is interesting because the narrator is middle grade age, although his sixteen-year-old sister fits into the YA category, and books are generally categorized by the age of the protagonist. But the book deals with situations too intense for some MG readers but suitable for YAs. I think it's a great book for adult readers—especially those of us who remember the freedom ten-year-olds had a few decades and who remember Vietnam.

Speaking of Vietnam: At the 2010 CNU conference, I'd submitted a couple of pages of my YA work-in-progress for critique by an agent at a big agency and an associate editor at Simon and Schuster. My YA Appalachian novel was set in 1972, and the Vietnam war was important because of its influence on a mountain family. (Another conference-goer also had a novel set in the 70s.) Both agent and associate editor said they wouldn't be interested in YA novels set in the 70s because YAs want to read about what's happening now; YAs have no interest in Vietnam. Consequently, I stopped working on that novel.

Reading Eli the Good makes me think that maybe I should start again.



Blogger Sweet Virginia Breeze said...

I love the quote about country people having more stars. Sounds like a good book.

9:39 PM  
Blogger CountryDew said...

Great review. I hope you do work on your book, regardless. I've read several books lately set in the 1970s; I think it is the new 1950s in literature.

3:48 PM  

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