A Review of Silas House’s Eli the Good

Silas House’s book for middle readers, Eli the Good (Candlewick Press, 2009), is like its ten-year-old protagonist: both are subdued but keenly observant, of a particular moment but always conscious of a broader perspective, and concerned both with nature and human nature. House’s prose is simple and accurate, and he makes multiple characters – Eli, his parents, his aunt, his sister, and his best friend — vivid. The book crackles when characters interact, especially when they argue. This story reveals a family full of love despite their anger at themselves or each other or their circumstances, and Eli is the heart of the family — in love with them all, trying always to discover who they are and who he is.

 

The book is set in the summer of 1976. House gives us plenty of cultural references — Leif Garrett, ABBA, The Waltons, Jaws — which can both feel forced and irresistible (perhaps especially for readers like me who were also kids back then). The central conflict focuses on Eli’s father, who is struggling with flashbacks from his time in Vietnam; the situation is exacerbated by Eli’s sixteen-year-old sister’s constant anger and their father’s sister, with whom his relationship is strained, who comes to stay. Eli’s world revolves around his family and his best friend, Edie; and around playing in the creek, riding his bike, and sitting under his favorite tree. None of the major events are caused by Eli, but he is still in the middle of them, and his journey is to make some sense of what is happening — he is a skilled eavesdropper — and to figure out who he is in the middle of all this.

 

At times the plot clunks — such as when we are given information we should have had a couple chapters before — and House overdoes foreshadowing: the characters carry the plot along well enough that we don’t need so many murmurings about the big things that are to come. The foreshadowing is also a part of the slightly overdone telling about how events fit in to Eli’s adult sense of the world and his pronouncements on who people are. The narrator makes it very aware to us that he is the grown-up Eli relating the story, and that voice sometimes is too dominant. The epilogue, written in the present time, comes across as the weakest part of the story, and tying in the events of 1976 to the Iraq war feels self-conscious, too autobiographical.

 

Despite some rough patches, the story rings true and honest. It is wonderful to get to know a boy who feels so much, who is good, and looks for the good in others. He calls himself weird, but we as readers know that his weirdness is what makes us want to listen to him.

Words I Read Over and Over Again

“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another…And yet these events have formed Gogol, shaped him determined who he is. They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

–Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 287 of Mariner Books edition)

Great YA You Might Have Missed

I love me some Suzanne Collins, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Markus Zuzak, and Sherman Alexie, but maybe you haven’t discovered these yet (and if you have, aren’t they amazing???):

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Beauty Queens by Libby Bray
Huntress by Malinda Lo
The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds
The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

The Problem with Allegiant [spoilers]

AGAIN, SPOILERS.

 

 

Endings are hard. If a writer has successfully created a world that pulls me in, I want the story to resolve and yet want the story to keep going forever. That tension between wanting resolution and wanting to stay in the story increases the longer I read, while the options for how the story can resolve constantly narrow. As long as the story does not end, anything can happen, yet my desire for what can or should happen grows more and more particular.

So, as a reader, I give writers a lot of leeway with their endings because in books that absorb me, I am aware I have grown invested and possessive of the story, but ultimately I have to accept that it is the writer telling me the story, and I am there to listen.

Therefore, in Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, I am okay with the fact that the main character, Tris, dies. I don’t think she has to die to accomplish the growth and change Roth envisioned for her (see http://veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com/2013/10/about-end-of-allegiant-spoilers.html ) because Tris’s decision to sacrifice herself for the right reasons would not have been diminished if she survived that decision — what matters are Tris’s intentions, and her belief that she is sacrificing herself. I would have loved to see the life she made for herself after risking her life for the right reasons and coming out on the other side of the ordeal. And yes, I would have preferred that ending.

However, her death is not the book’s central flaw, the flaw that prevents it from succeeding as a story. The central flaw is the shift in the third book of the trilogy from a single character’s first-person point of view to the alternating first-person point of view between Tris and Tobias. As most writers know from any introduction to creative writing class, point of view is considered to be a contract with the reader. But as most writers also know, all writing rules can be broken. Just because Roth began her trilogy using one point of view and then shifted to another does not mean I stopped reading the book, but it made me wary: Roth was going to need an excellent reason for such a drastic shift. A writer raises the bar high when she breaks such a fundamental rule as consistency of point of view. So much of a story depends on the perspective from which it is told. In the first two books, that perspective is Tris’s; it is her story and her voice. We are learning as she is learning. We see the world through her eyes. She is making choices and processing them. She is the hero of the story. She is the center.

And then in Allegiant, Tobias’s point of view inserts itself. (I should note that I experienced the series as audio books, so the shift in point of view was even more jarring than if I had read it on the page; I loved Emma Galvant’s narration of the Tris sections, but Aaron Stanford’s work in the Tobias sections is mediocre.) As soon as Tobias starts narrating, I wondered why — and the obvious answer was that Tris was going to die and would not be able to finish telling the story. I was left wondering if that outcome is inevitable, distracting me from the story.

But most importantly, to make a sudden shift in the third book of a trilogy is to change intention far too late. It is like Roth did not realize that she was telling Tris’s story. Throwing in Tobias’s point of view, even if Roth decided it was necessary for what she wanted to do with the plot, undercuts Tris’s story. Tris is no longer the sole hero, and her journey to death is actually less meaningful because of that change. Roth built up two books where we cared deeply about the protagonist and then expected us to care just as much about another character— not that I don’t care about Tobias, but I care about him most in relation to Tris.

I don’t know if Roth wrote herself into a corner. I don’t know if she fell in love with Tobias. But she left Tris behind in a more important way than leaving her dead on the floor on the weapons room: she took away her centrality, her perspective. The last chapters without Tris are weak not because of plot. They are weak because they do not have the hero we had invested in so much. The last thing I wanted in this series was for the hero to be silenced.

 

 

 

 

“Prayer Number Twenty”

Prayer Number Twenty

Wind carry me up and away,

my loves’ voices in the air as echoes

and the taste of all words in my mouth.

I want no sight but the shimmer of darkness,

no touch but yours,

and the smell of rain

as we skim the surface of the world

— Medina Martin