Bells for Eli by Susan Beckham Zurenda

Bells for Eli by Susan Beckham Zurenda
Publisher: Mercer University Press
Genre: Historical (recent)
Length: Full Length (282 pgs)
Rated: 5 stars
Review by Snapdragon

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

First cousins Ellison (Eli) Winfield and Adeline (Delia) Green are meant to grow up happily and innocently across the street from one another amid the supposed wholesome values of small-town Green Branch, South Carolina, in the 1960s and 70s. But Eli’s tragic accident changes the trajectory of their lives and of those connected to them. Shunned and even tortured by his peers for his disfigurement and frailty, Eli struggles for acceptance in childhood as Delia passionately devotes herself to defending him. Delia’s vivid and compassionate narrative voice presents Eli as a confident young man in adolescence–the visible damage to his body gone–but underneath hides indelible wounds harboring pain and insecurity, scars that rule his impulses. And while Eli cherishes Delia more than anyone and attempts to protect her from her own troubles, he cares not for protecting himself. It is Delia who has that responsibility, growing more challenging each year. BELLS FOR ELI is a lyrical and tender exploration of the relationship between cousins drawn together through tragedy in a love forbidden by social constraints and a family whose secrets must stay hidden. Susan Beckham Zurenda masterfully transports readers into a small Southern town where quiet, ordinary life becomes extraordinary. In this compelling coming of age story, culture, family, friends, bullies, and lovers propel two young people to unite to guard each other in a world where love, hope, and connectedness ultimately triumph.

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It all sets off in a graveyard, where a brief chance meeting reveals a great deal about central characters, as well as giving us a sense of the character of this small southern town. It is a deceivingly quiet start for the drama that immediately follows.

No spoilers here! This story needs to be read and savored, without giveaways about events. The two main characters, Delia and Eli, are super, but no less are the many secondary characters: the parents who care so enormously, the families who are related, distantly, but all have that sense of kinship. The mid-twentieth-century in Small-Town South Carolina seems the perfect backdrop.

The harsh details are there, pulling us in from moment-to-moment, yet the details fade beside the emotion, from fear to curiosity, sometimes in as many words. There are moments when we readers grasp the significance of a thing, well before Delia does. It might be described as a coming-of-age novel, although I would say it’s about gaining understanding, and perhaps insight. It is not an entirely comfortable process.

Bells for Eli is simply beautifully written. Somehow, the words slip into the background as the story plays out for us. The author goes far beyond creating reader sympathy; we somehow step into that first summer and share so many firsts in the tenderest of lifetimes. Love is there in so many actions…

The gentle power of this novel completely surprised me. It’s a solid 5 star book. Do read.