Monday, February 07, 2011

Elijah’s Coin: A Lesson for Life by Steve O’Brien

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 128 pages
• Publisher: A & N Publishing, 2009
• Price: $21.95
• ISBN-10: 0982073542
• ISBN-13: 978-0982073544

This compact book fit nicely into my hands as I opened it to read. It is marketed for teens and young adults, but I have often enjoyed literature for younger age groups. I am curious to see things as the younger generations do, so it caught my attention with the premise of young man gone bad and turning back to good.

I have spent some years working with troubled youth, and that experience opened my eyes to a darker side of society that too few of us are willing to truly see. Where I once feared such unruly youth, I came to realize many of them, if not all, are at heart longing to be accepted and loved. Aren’t we all? And when life for whatever reason has denied them this, they turn to ways that get them deep into trouble, sometimes marking them for life. Few if any human beings turn bad without reason. More times than not, I found, when I gave respect, I got it back, and when I offered kindness, I made new friends.

One of my all-time favorite books is True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman, a memoir of his working with at-risk youth in juvenile delinquent homes and young adult prisons, teaching them to write creatively. It is my measuring stick for books dealing with delinquency in youth.

Elijah’s Coin by Steve O’Brien falls far short of Salzman’s book—but it does have real merit. The author is a lawyer specializing in international corporate law and litigation, and I sometimes sense that courtroom orderliness and neat conclusion in this story. Life is not that way. He has an impressive background in law, but, to my knowledge, this is his first book.

The premise of the story is terrific, and hats off for the great gimmick—and I do mean that in the most positive way. Two coins are attached inside the back cover of the book, just like the coins described in the book. Adding something tactile like this to a young person’s reading experience is a terrific idea, keeping the lessons the book teaches much longer in mind, inspiring the reader to pass along the reading experience. Kudos.

It is the story itself that on occasion suffers. It is quite didactic. If there is one thing a teen doesn’t appreciate, it is being preached to, even if it is the most valuable life lesson. Add juvenile tendencies, and you have a quick rebellion on your hands. The character of Elijah, in fact, gets this, and lets the boy in the book find his own way to his life lessons (and there is more than one) after an initial talk. A kid can see a good lesson coming a mile away, and it won’t be appreciated. Offer an example and let him loose in the right direction, and you might have something. It’s a delicate balance.

So I winced here and there in my reading. A lot of telling, not nearly enough showing. That’s a first lesson in good writing. Neither the reader nor the characters are a captive audience in a courtroom, obligated to be there. They must be seduced by a good story. This story cries out for more description that paints a living picture for the reader. Consider:

“Lunch was just ending, and several groups of men were clustered at three separate tables. A smallish woman was picking up trays and plates at a vacant table. Another gray-haired woman was taking pans and trays off the makeshift counter where the food was served. A large overweight man was hard at work scrubbing pots in the back part of the open kitchen. The smallish woman saw me walking forward and smiled.” (pg. 65)

Smallish? Large and overweight? This is lazy writing.

And still, I was drawn forward and kept turning pages. The opening, after all, intrigued me. The premise held me. A boy who had recently lost his mother to a horrific crime was now considering becoming a criminal himself. He was full of defiance and angry rebellion. Only thing in his way was the mysterious figure of Elijah, who placed this odd coin in his hand …

The young almost-criminal is led to follow a path that will teach him life lessons along the way, often by having him reach out to others. While I was unconvinced by the boy’s level of determination to find the disappearing Elijah (why?), I could appreciate the lessons. His search takes him to a young entrepreneur, a corporate lawyer, a philanthropist. Each one has something to offer him, each one has encountered the mysterious Elijah, each one carries a coin just like the one he was given. In the process of searching, the boy finds himself. He finds healing, understanding, purpose, new hope and even love.

While too many of the lessons learned taste like medicine, this is an overall enjoyable book that the thoughtful young person may enjoy reading, if only out of curiosity about the cool coin. The author may not reach the audience I imagine he intended to reach—troubled teens—but he may give pause to other young readers who may yet serve as examples.