After finishing his own chores each day, ten-year-old Billy travels the two miles to Eli's place, where they spend time together, talking and laughing, while Billy helps the elderly man tend to his garden, work in his barn, or mend fences out in a cow pasture. There is no person Billy admires more than THE white-haired Eli, who spends countless hours not only teaching Billy farming skills, but also steering him toward a meaningful manhood: "Simply choose to be what you have dreamed you will be, and you will create that life … love yourself for who you are."
On one of his daily visits to Eli's farm, his aged friend invites Billy to explore the forest beyond the bog. The youth eagerly trails along. Eli teaches the impressionable youth about deer, snakes, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, and a host of animals that live in the forest and in its woodland pond. But the elderly gentleman imbues the youth with more than factual information. More importantly, Eli teaches Billy a respect for all living creatures:
"These animals, trees and even the tiniest of insects are part of us all … in a sense you can say we are all one being."
Eli introduces Billy to Martha, the oldest tree in the forest. He explains how she drops her seeds each autumn to start other saplings growing the following spring. In fact, he says "… many of her offspring have grown into this wonderful forest."
But Billy is both confused and surprised when Eli begins talking aloud to the forest creatures like the huge buck, Trevor, and particularly the ancient tree, Martha. He assumes Eli is merely talking as a kind friend would talk to a loving, adoring pet. Yet the old man insists the creatures of the forest not only hear him, but answer him:
"If you remember to listen closely from within and from your heart, you will then understand how to hear the beings of this special place."
As The Journey Home develops, after many shared forest explorations, Billy and the reader become astounded to realize that Eli's claim is true. He does communicate with nature. What's more, the elderly man's ability slowly passes on to Billy, who now knows the names and unique natural habitat of each creature.
A sad episode occurs when Billy's mother finds a good job in another state; the two move away leaving Eli, his farm, and his forest friends to fend for themselves. For the next 25 years, Eli and Billy communicate only by occasional letter and a rare phone call. Inevitably, the old man dies but not until he has left a will stating his farmstead belongs to his now adult friend, Billy.
Billy, his wife, and their young daughter return to Eli's neglected farm and begin to restore it. The Journey Home reveals some of the difficulties all three have adjusting to life in the remote rural area. It is easiest for Billy who begins taking his daughter, Natalie, on exploratory walks through the forest, just as Eli had taken him so many years before. At first the animals are reluctant to befriend him after a 25-year hiatus.
One of the most delightful parts of The Journey Home is Chapter Twenty-one. Here, the forest creatures talk among themselves plotting how they will discover if it really is Billy who has returned as a grown man.
I found Gary A Young's work a short but delightful read. It points out the special bond that exists between the human and animal world if we take the time to hunt it. What's more, the book shows that the generation gap can be foolishness—age differences need not separate persons bonded in spirit by love.
If you are looking for a feel-good tale you can enjoy as an adult, this book is for you. If you read to your children or grandchildren each night at bedtime, the chapters of this book will provide them with warm-fuzzy thoughts before they drift off to sleep.
It would be great if newer editions of The Journey Home contained simple pencil drawings on some of its pages. They would only enhance the story by allowing readers to see Billy and Eli and their host of forest friends "talking" with one another.