The Nature of Refuge

A Review of Silas House’s Eli the Good

Eli the Good
Silas House
Candlewick Press 2009, 304 pages
Fiction – Young Adult
Reviewed by Sarah Hocut

Silas House’s young adult novel, Eli the Good, follows the story of 10-year-old Eli Book, who spends the summer of 1976 carefully watching those around him. There’s his father, who grows more distant and violent each day as memories of the Vietnam War continue to haunt him; his older sister, who seems to be intent on being rebellious; his Aunt Nell, a famously photographed war protester and free spirit who learns she has cancer; his friend, Edie, whose mother leaves after she and Edie’s father divorce; and his own mother, who acts as the glue that holds them all together. 

Eli the Good is House’s fourth novel. His novels, all set in his homeland of rural Kentucky, pay homage to the Appalachian storytelling tradition. House is also the Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, a member of the fiction faculty in Spalding University’s MFA program, the founder and fiction editor of Still: The Journal, a music journalist, and an environmental activist.

Although the novel represents House’s first foray into the young adult genre, House accomplishes what few authors do well—captures the honest and pure moments of childhood. He positions Eli as who we all were at one point, a curious child who tries hard to understand what is going on with adults, takes in the world with wide eyes, and learns about true love, pain, and loyalty. However, while the main character is a ten-year-old boy, the story’s mature themes make the novel more suitable for a true young adult audience.

Besides House’s ability to present the essence of childhood so perfectly, what also makes Eli the Good such a compelling read is the great attention paid to setting. Set in the fictional small eastern Kentucky town of Refuge, the novel brings to life the nature that surrounds Eli—from the beech tree that’s “bark is not like bark at all, but skin” and trunk “like an elephant’s wide, gray legs” to the sunlight that “filtered through the leaves and made them look like pieces of typing paper that had been cut in the shape of leaves.” 

The landscape, like the characters, moves and transforms. House’s vivid and unique descriptions bring an authenticity to the story; just as Eli could have been any of us, Refuge could have been any of our hometowns. A sense of familiarity lingers on the page, a nostalgia for raw, visceral simplicity. The intricacies of the book—the slow build-up of events wrapped in beautiful descriptions of the land and the contemplative thoughts of a young boy—lead the reader to a final moment that makes you feel as if you’re actually there, a member of the Book family.

House’s careful choice of emblematic names throughout the novel helps characterize the town and the people. The setting is Refuge; Eli’s hometown truly represents a place of freedom and safe harbor for him. It is where he rides his bike along the banks of the river, wades in the cool water, and feels the trees humming their history to him. He finds solace in the land—nestled among the roots of a beech tree or under the cover of a snowball bush. Even when Eli, as an adult, reflects back on his hometown, he muses, “Why I left, I don’t know. I have never found a place of more beautiful night sounds, have never found a place where I so completely belonged despite being different.” And the surname Book perhaps comes from the idea that each family member has a profound story to tell. Each character represents a chapter in the Book family’s history.  

But at the core of this book is the message that family comes in all forms, from the orphaned and pregnant teenage girl who finds solace in a stranger’s home to the man who chooses to raise a child that isn’t his own. Even the young narrator enlightens the reader as he looks at his friend and tells us, “That was the first time that I realized Edie was my family, too. Just as much as Nell or Josie or my parents or anyone. She was my blood, and I would have died or killed for her.”

House shows us the difficulties of growing up, reminds us that sometimes we need to see the world through the eyes of a child, and speaks truth of the notion that love knows no boundaries.

Sarah Hocut was born and raised in Acworth, Georgia. She attended the University of Georgia and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in English. In August of 2011, she completed the Master of Arts in Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State University, where she focused her studies on applied and creative writing. Sarah works as an information developer for an editing/writing/instructional design firm in Cumming, Georgia, and lives in Alpharetta.

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