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Bells for Eli    by Susan Beckham Zurenda order for
Bells for Eli
by Susan Beckham Zurenda
Order:  USA  Can
Mercer University Press, 2020 (2020)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

When Ellison (Eli) Winfield and Adeline (Delia) Green are preschool age children, Eli is hurt in a terrible accident. The two cousins, who live across the street from each other, might have become close friends anyway, but they are the only children on their block in small-town Green Branch, South Carolina, and Eli's injury draws them together in an even tighter bond. In Bells for Eli, Susan Beckham Zurenda gives us an account of their growing up years in the sixties and seventies, a time in America that was fraught with change and upheaval.

Eli is hurt the day before his third birthday in June, 1959, and his recovery, although something of a miracle, leaves him terribly scarred for most of his childhood. Delia watches over him, both at home and at school, being a friend to him when other children shun him, sticking up for him when he's bullied, and helping him in any way she can as they grow into their teens. Meanwhile, the world around them is changing and although the antiwar efforts in America aren't felt as strongly in their small Southern town, little by little even Green Branch is affected.

Delia is our narrator, and we feel all of her anger and grief over Eli's treatment by others as well as her later hurt when, outwardly recovered as a pre-teen, Eli finds more acceptance by other boys and doesn't seem to need her any more. Unfortunately, he also becomes involved in the increasing drug culture of the sixties and seventies.

This book is an engrossing story of a child's struggle with a serious injury, but it's also a believable account of what challenges young people faced growing up in the sixties and seventies. Illegal drugs of all kinds became readily available, wreaking havoc on developing brains, while the upheavals of the Vietnam War and civil rights protests affected everyone in the country. The young people in this book struggle to understand and survive these changes while also just trying to grow up.

Zurenda's book is well-written, with believable, sympathetic characters, and seeing dates at the beginnings of the chapters helped this reader stay with Delia and Eli as they grew up. Susan Zurenda has given us a faithful representation of recent history in our society that kept me interested and engaged in Bells for Eli from beginning to end.

2nd Review by Barbara Lingens:

In South Carolina in the 1960s, cousins live across the street from each other, and their adventures and misadventures make for a very appealing story. Not only does author Zurenda show us what life is like in a small southern town, she brings us directly into its atmosphere of still-remaining prejudice and class difference.

As young children, Eli and Delia are innocents, discovering family secrets but not always understanding them the way the adults would want them to. Then Eli has a terrible accident, which changes both their lives forever.

The story unfolds slowly, and there is even a mystery that involves a beloved family member. The author is wonderfully sensitive to how these young people feel as they grow to maturity. Each cousin is the other's first and forever love, and watching them discover that fact and then learning to live with it brings both heartbreak and heartfelt tenderness. A vivid portrayal of two souls forever entwined.

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