Oh, brother. Literally.
It always amazes me when an author writes about a sensitive subject with aplomb—and in a way that kids can easily grasp, no less. Not by being overly dramatic. Not by tiptoeing around the issue. But by simply telling it like it is, how it actually happens. Rebecca Rupp (The Dragon of Lonely Island; Sarah Simpson's Rules for Living; Octavia Boone's Big Questions about Life, the Universe and Everything) has done this in her latest middle-grade novel, After Eli. The book squeezes readers’ hearts and won’t let go.
When Danny was 11 years old, his brother Eli was killed instantly while serving as a medic in Iraq after a truck he was in ran over an IED. His parents got the call; a team of CAO’s (Casualty Assistance Officers) came to the front door and succinctly laid out the facts surrounding his death; Danny’s life was never the same again. His mother stopped getting dressed and answering the phone. His father started lecturing him about his grades, his attitude, and his lack of direction. And Danny? Danny responded to it all by creating a book of the dead—a notebook filled with facts about people who died for no reason. Like George Mallory, the man who died while climbing Mt. Everest in 1924. Or Charles Stephens, who drowned while going over Niagara Falls in a barrel with an anvil tied to his feet.
But in between piecing together the book, slacking off in school, and worrying about his mother’s deteriorating mental state, Danny thought about Eli and got angry. Wearing a tie at Eli’s funeral stunk and Eli’s foolhardily promise to watch The Return of the King on DVD after his tour of duty in Iraq was over made Danny furious. Memories of their “Education Days” when Eli would teach him how to drive a car, how to throw a football, how to smoke a cigarette but not get addicted, “all about bras,” or where babies came from, were almost too prickly to endure, no matter how much time had passed. Staring at the sign on Eli’s bedroom door that still read “Keep Out. P.S. Danny, you twerp, this means you too!” was agony. Where did his brother go? “Eli didn’t have to go to war. He volunteered,” Danny thought, most days. “He did it on purpose . . . He went because he wanted to . . . because it was there.”
Three years later, as Danny looks back on Eli’s death while narrating his story, he can’t help but ask himself questions that no one, not even his parents (or Rupp’s adult readers) have the answer to. About 9/11: “Why wasn’t God looking after all the passengers on those planes and all the people trapped in the tower on the 106th floor; with the I beams melting under them and the smoke crawling under the doors? Where was God then?” About Eli’s death: “I think living or dying is just dumb luck. If Eli had taken a few minutes longer to lace up his boots that morning, or if he’d had three eggs for breakfast instead of two, maybe he’d have been in a different truck, on that didn’t run over the bomb.” About growing old without his brother: “We never thought that when I was eighty, Eli would still be twenty-two.” As Eli goes through the motions of trying to come to terms with the fact that his brother is never coming back, it’s torture (but perhaps cathartic?) to watch his little heart bleed. In the end, when Danny trashes Eli’s room and screams at the top of his lungs, “Why did you have to do it?” we feel his rage and the deepest, darkest depths of his despair.
But despite its morose subject matter, After Eli isn’t all doom and gloom. Interspersed throughout Danny’s reminiscences of his brother are accounts of an indelible summer spent working on his brother’s best friend’s organic farm, and falling in love with a girl named Isabelle. The more time he spends with her, her younger twin siblings Jasper and Journey (both hoots), and his new brainy friend Walter, the more he inadvertently learns to put one foot in front of the other, to experience joy, and to live again, one step at a time. Rupp infuses this part of the narrative with just enough hope and humor to convince readers that Danny and his family, despite their very visceral and enduring trauma, really will get through the tough times, with a little time and patience.
Don't let the misleading happy-go-lucky cover fool you. This is a hard-hitting book that fosters healthy and honest discussions about death, war, love, and moving forward even when it’s nearly impossible.
Like most bookworms, Alexis Burling has loved reading since she could crawl. She has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and has reviewed both children's and adult books for prominent media outlets such as teenreads.com, Publishers Weekly, and the Washington Post.
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