“One thing I’ve learned is that mountain people are alike. It doesn’t matter where the mountains are – mountain people are the same. Even people in the highlands of Scotland are mountain folks like us.” Silas House
Thanks to the wonders of Skype technology, my English class had a special visitor today. Author Silas House discussed his novel, Eli the Good with a group of eager Grundy High School seniors while sitting in his office at Berea College. House is Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center and associate professor of Appalachian studies at the college. Best known as an award-winning author of four best-selling novels: “Clay’s Quilt” (2001), “A Parchment of Leaves” (2003), “The Coal Tattoo” (2004) and “Eli the Good” (2009), House has earned many literary awards, including the Southern Book Critics Circle Prize, the Kentucky Novel of the Year, the Appalachian Writer of the Year, the Lee Smith Award, the Appalachian Book of the Year, the Chaffin Prize for Literature, and the Award for Special Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
But today, he was a storyteller. Silas captivated my students, describing how the character Eli is autobiographical. “My father was a Viet Nam vet,” House said. “He suffered from PTSD - post traumatic stress disorder, only we didn’t call it that then, and when he had flashbacks, I would go to the woods.”
The students listened as House talked about growing up playing in the woods and wading in the creek. “I was always outside,” he said. “It was why Eli sought solace from his family’s problems from nature.”
In the book, it is from the wisdom of Eli’s Aunt Nell, that Eli learns to value the place of his childhood as she tells him that "there's not a tree in the world like the ones you grow up with." Silas talked at length about his love of trees and how trees are important in all of his books.
Silas told my class that when he decided to write Eli the Good, he wanted it to be a book about patriotism. Only in this book, the war is over, but as is true of so many veterans, the war is never really over. It is the way House juxtaposed Eli’s Aunt Nell, who thinks she is a patriot because she protested the war; with Eli's father, Stanton, who thinks he is a patriot because he fought in the war; that illuminates the conflict in this family. In the midst of this turmoil is ten year old Eli who wants to “know” about the war. His curiosity makes him eavesdrop on the adults, and even dare to read his father's letters from Viet Nam that his mother has carefully put away.
When our visit was over, excited chatter burst from the students like a broken pinata. The first comment was, “Mrs. Elswick, he talks just like us!” I had to laugh, especially when the whole class chimed in, "he did; he did sound like us!" Other comments were, "I'm so glad he says he's a hillbilly!" "Did he really live in a holler when he was a kid?" The students talked at length about what Silas said about mountain people - that wherever those mountains may be- we are alike in many ways. But the best comment of all was silent. My students stood and looked back at the black TV screen. I even heard a sigh or two. They dragged their feet as we left the room, not wanting to leave. It was the same way they acted when they finished reading the book - not wanting it to end.