Eli the Good by Silas House.
Candlewick Press: Somerville, MA, 2009.

I was surprised when I could not find this book on any of the American Library Association's lists. It seems to me to have Newbery written all over it, an ultra-serious book with the poignancy of childhood details during a troubled time period. It's not even on the list for best YA books. It's certainly a subject many teens want to understand better considering we are still embroiled in wars.

It's 1976, the summer of the bicentennial, and though the Vietnam War is over, Eli's family is not over it. His father is having nightmare flashbacks, causing violent behavior he cannot control. His aunt is in town, stirring up emotions with her opposing views. His mom is caught in between, trying to calm the whole situation, though maybe that's impossible with his older sister acting out. His best friend is eaten up with pain and worry at the separation of her parents. Eli is 10, too young to be thinking about all this stuff. But he spends the summer spying on conversations and digging for more knowledge, because he has to know what's going on. His dad's episodes are moving beyond dreams, and he thinks it's his fault. He did a crazy, spontaneous thing that jolted his dad right back to Vietnam. It's a summer that's a turning point in the relationships of everyone concerned, explosive and revealing, yet cathartic, a point from which to move forward.

Despite the deep emotional turmoil, the book is largely a chronicle of remembrances of special moments which add up to the lasting friendships of the personalities. It is also a period book with many 70s references. Written from Eli's point-of-view, there is a strong connection to the nature around him, particularly the trees. Four characters speak of the trees. Music is another strong motif (dancing and singing together as well as several song references, the freedom and joy involved in both the singing and dancing). 10 may be a little young for coming of age, but in a way we see that in Eli. With so much emotional upheaval, one can't help but learn a bit of what's required for coping with the hardness of reality. Most of all what I like about the book is that it is an honest accounting of the coping. It's not a book contrived to portray issues. It feels like family and friends dealing with life and each other.

I don't have any idea for what level the book was meant. The subject to me is definitely young adult. 6th graders might be able to read it, but I doubt many would choose it. Maybe some that are more affected by the wars would. Though the perspective is Eli's, it really is from an adult looking back to his 10th summer.

related-family problems, friendship, best friends, post-traumatic stress disorder, Vietnam War, American Revolution Bicentennial, 1976, aunts
RL=8th and up

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