BELLS FOR ELI, by Susan Beckham Zurenda. Mercer University Press. 280 pages. Hardcover $25.00
Review by Philip K. Jason
Coming of age narratives, particularly about young women, have long been a staple in the literature of the American South. Zurenda’s marvelous book is a major achievement in this genre. It is deeply moving, troubling, and gloriously poetic. It brings to life small town South Carolina during the 1960s and 70s in a gorgeous and profound tale of the heart’s competing destinies.
Eli Winfield and Delia Green are first cousins, almost identical in age, growing up in and sharing the often-conflicting values of Green Branch, a small town with a long history.
The core drama of the novel begins with a serious accident. Eli swallows some lye, and the consequences are a severe physical and psychological handicap. The lye burns everything in its internal path through his body, and Eli only partly emerges from a trauma that follows him through his life. He endures a tracheotomy and is hospitalized for six months. He requires and tube in his throat.
Among the other children, he is a freak – a misfit. He needs special accommodations in order to make his young way in the world. His breathing and speech are strange. His accident has raised being different to a higher power.
Cousin Delia remains close and supportive to him, but Eli, with a mixture of resentment and bravado, remains a boy apart.
The author’s skill at bring readers into Eli’s changed world, and Delia’s part in his steps toward various stages of recovery, is remarkable. We get to know the cousins (and the larger extended family) extremely well.
As they mature socially, physically, and intellectually, the cousins’ abiding love for one another undergoes many tests and modifications. Eli strives to assert his likeness to the other kids, but for years he remains a freak, and he overcompensates to assert his worth and dignity. He is remarkable in what is essentially a losing fight. He’s been judged, taken advantage of, belittled, and humiliated. You know how kids can be. Well, the worst of rotten kid behavior is thrown in Eli’s path.
As the narrative builds, the attraction and love between the first cousins raises the issue of how, given religious strictures important to Delia, they cannot consider marriage. . . .
To read the full review, as first published in the Southern Literary Review, click here: