Thursday, August 4, 2011

Eli the Good

Every semester, the English department is faced with the challenge of selecting a book to be used in all our developmental reading and writing classes, and in any other courses at the teachers' discretion. Sometimes the choice is influenced by our plans for our Writers Symposium. We've hosted Ron Rash when we taught Serena and Clyde Edgerton in connection with The Bible Salesman. Last spring, we really stepped out on a limb and invited poets from North Carolina--Cathy Smith Bower, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Scott Owens, Tim Peeler, Ted Pope, and Joseph Bathanti.

This fall, since we are introducing a new course, Vietnam History, a class that will follow the same interdisciplinary plan we use in our Holocaust class. Literature about the Vietnam war is plentiful. In one of my favorite courses in grad school, War Literature, I read many of them--Dispatches, The Short-Timers, and The Things They Carried, among others. This year, we took a different direction, selecting Silas House's novel Eli the Good.

With a ten-year-old protagonist, the book is sometimes labeled Young Adult Fiction. (I can't help wondering how To Kill a Mockingbird or Diary of a Young Girl would have been shelved today.) Set in 1976, the novel examines a family whose father is beginning to experience flashbacks (before PTSD was acknowledged as real). Meanwhile, his estranged sister, newly diagnosed with cancer, comes home. During her brother's overseas duty, she participated in war protests and was captured in an iconic photo that has made its way into history textbooks.

House weaves in stories of generational conflicts and the effects of parental actions on children. He allows the gray area to remain. The book provides no easy answers about the war; consequently, I expect it to produce some ripe discussions in our classes. Since our students' ages range from teens to sixty and over, the varied perspectives should produce some powerful conversations and good opportunities for related research.

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