Susan Zurenda’s Bells For Eli is a simple yet complicated and powerful debut novel set in the 1960s and 1970s. Cousins Eli and Delia grow up across the street from each other in a small, seemingly tranquil, South Carolina town. They are the same age and best friends.
The story begins when they are three years old. Eli’s father leaves an open Coca-Cola bottle containing lye on their back-porch steps. He’d used the lye to blow up the balloons for Eli’s third birthday. Eli finds the bottle and takes a drink. (Zurenda writes about the real-life basis for this event on her blog.) He barely survives, enduring numerous surgeries and long hospitalizations. This accident forever impacts their lives: Eli is teased, tortured, and shunned by his classmates in elementary school because he is different from the other children. They eat normally, for example, while his nutrition is inserted through a feeding tube. Delia, who narrates the story, is his loyal and dedicated defender. Her voice has a certain echo of the voice of Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, also set in a small Southern town in simpler times
As an adolescent, Eli’s outward scars are no longer visible. His internal emotional and physical scars, as well as his self-doubt, are manifested through increasingly impulsive and dangerous behaviors. The characters are well developed and in tune with the times they lived through. The pacing kept me turning the pages to find out what would happen next, and the plot provides some unexpected and surprising twists. The author’s research for period details is remarkable; this novel evoked my own coming of age.
Eli is an only child and his mother comes from a wealthy family. Delia describes her aunt as a glamorous, beautiful, and kind lady who dresses like June Cleaver. She is a classical pianist with one unmarried, childless, professor brother. Her family does not really accept Eli’s dad, a loud, stocky veteran. He is a salesman, but as his drinking increases, he works less and less.
Delia’s mother and Eli’s father are brother and sister; but they are as different as day and night. Her mother is strict but nurturing, while her uncle is a guilt-ridden alcoholic who pushes his son to be one of the boys—chasing girls, being tough, taking no guff from anyone, and participating in high school sports and drinking parties. Delia’s father is a quiet banker, and provides a stable home for his family. They go to church together every week, but they are not wealthy.
This novel addresses a taboo subject in today’s world: the cousins are in love with each other. Eli’s maternal grandmother warns them that it can never be. She provides them with clues to mysterious family secrets which Eli eventually solves.
Bells For Eli follows Eli and Delia’s lives for nineteen years. Though a coming of age story, this novel is for anyone of any age who enjoys reading period drama set in the 1960s and 1970s. The story will stay with you long after the last page.