Bells for Eli

A Novel By Susan Beckham Zurenda 1960s-‘70s Southern Coming-of-Age Tale Review


July 2020 Issue
by Meredith M Deal

“There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” These lyrics by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant hold true to the devoted lives of the two main characters in Susan Zurenda’s Southern family’s tale of secrets, Bells For Eli [A Novel].

I was immediately transported back in time to the significant cultural challenges of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and how many survived those times, and some did not. And I could feel the heat as Susan described a small-town South Carolina summer with no air-conditioning and dusty front porches. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead as I read page after page, as Delia brought her story alive, just for me.

Delia is the novel’s protagonist, narrator and her cousin Eli’s utmost protector. The duo’s close family bonds are revealed as they hang on tight. I was pulled into their intertwined heartbreaking extraordinary lives, greatly changed after Eli suffers a childhood accident, leaving him in chronic pain. Delia tells how pain “became second nature to him.” Eli feels only the impulsive Delia, who admits to wearing her feelings on her sleeve, can understand him.

This novel is full of true delights. There’s the teen angst narrative on awkward 9th grade dances, rebel attitudes, eight-track tapes, paisley fashions, a bright yellow Camaro and Eli’s dance moves. As Eli and Delia’s first-cousin relationship evolves into college challenges and young adulthood, impervious to danger and disgrace, Eli has a hard time showing emotion except with Delia because she knows his story.

Yes, Delia and Eli were close; their family history and secrets make Bells For Eli a must-read.

We asked author Susan Zurenda a few questions:

What kind of cultural research created your setting? What were some of your favorite parts of pulling from the 1960s -‘70s time period during the process of your writing?

Since I came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s, I thought I would easily recall everything I needed from that period to set the atmosphere in Bells for Eli. But once I started writing, I realized many particulars I could not recall. Thus, the Internet became my friend. From specific slang we used back then to car makes and models, to posters teenagers hung on bedroom walls, I loved jumping back to those times. My character Eli is a musician, and the music of the era particularly drew me. Late one evening, when working on a scene in the novel in which Eli explains the beauty of “Stairway to Heaven” to his cousin Delia, I listened to Robert Plant sing Eli’s favorite song on You Tube and was transported back. I found myself nearly in tears.  

How did you decide on a small-town setting in middle South Carolina?

Green Branch is a fictitious town in South Carolina, but there are bits and pieces of this setting based on my hometown of Lancaster, SC, and my mother’s hometown of Winnsboro, SC. Also, I needed an all-male and all-female college in my plot. In my process of researching colleges and universities, I realized I had the perfect college models in my head: Wofford College and my alma mater Converse College in Spartanburg. Thus, I enrolled my characters in colleges in South Carolina.

What do you want people to take away from reading your novel?
In a letter to his friend Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” This is my purpose in Bells for Eli: for my characters’ lives to resonate with readers after the novel ends. To consider the irony of fate the novel presents: how it can take with one hand and give with the other. How childhood wounds of the heart might never leave and become the catalyst for decisions that bring this novel to a staggering conclusion, yet simultaneously, how boundless love can ultimately triumph in a world where cruelty and pain threaten to dominate.

Susan B. Zurenda Book Tour comes to Beaufort July 19 & 20th:
Meet & Greet and Book Signing               
Sunday, July 19th • 2:00 - 3:30 pm               
Location: McIntosh Books - 917 Bay St., Beaufort, SC 29902    

"Small-town South in the 60's" and her book Bells for Eli
Monday, July 20th • 5:30 pm - FREE Event. Seating is Limited.
Location: The Pat Conroy Literary Center - 905 Port Republic St, Beaufort, SC 29902
More Details:

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