“Bells for Eli,” by Susan Beckham Zurenda

Susan Beckham Zurenda

Reviewed 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 a 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.

School years go by that include scenes of Eli not wishing to attend school (to avoid harassment). The author shares with us Eli’s musical talent. How will he make a life for himself? What will Delia’s part in it be?

The main focus of the novel is a portrait of teenage life in a particular time and place. We meet teachers, school friends, rivals, and newcomers to the community. We see Delia, a late-bloomer physically, become a desirable date and girlfriend. We revisit the psychological tensions of adolescent life.

A time comes when Eli’s long-lived physical challenges are largely allayed by a new stage of surgery. He is now handsome, tall, and largely able to hold his own in the whirl of adolescent relationships. He has a gorgeous and committed girlfriend, he drives a cool car, and he seems like a cool customer without a problem in the world. Delia senses that the changes, while advantageous, are hiding something. Eli’s original trauma still taunts him. He has become a heavy drug user in order to escape his demons. Worse, he is selling narcotics for pocket money.

In a way, Delia is his lifeline, but she is reluctantly coming to the realization that Eli is somehow doomed, though he is usually able to put on a confident front.

Zurenda knows her characters well and shares her understanding with harrowing honesty. She looks deeply into the older generation of Greens and Winfields with profound sympathy. She notes that deep secrets have played a role in both the stability and frailty of the family trees.

Through it all, the extraordinary dedication that the cousins offer one another is seen as admirable if not always conducive to positive outcomes. A terrific multi-generational tale.

Click here to purchase this book:


  1. Donna Stanley Meredith says

    Terrific review! Can’t wait to read the book.

Leave a Reply