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.