Morgana, Mississippi, is to Eudora Welty as Green Branch, South Carolina, is to Spartanburg writer Susan Beckham Zurenda. Besides being fictitious backdrops for exploring themes like racism, family, and belonging, the small, secret-laden Southern towns provide a sense of place that, as Welty insisted, “focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point.” They beg us to see the extraordinary.
To that end, Zurenda’s debut novel, Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press), is deeply atmospheric. “It is a product of the time and place,” says Zurenda. Entrenched in the insularity of 1960s Green Branch — a locale that evidences “bits and pieces” of Zurenda’s hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina — narrator Adeline “Delia” Green and her first cousin Ellison “Eli” Winfield challenge cultural mores with an attachment that defies reason.
In keeping with the likes of contemporary novelists David Joy and Ron Rash, both based in Western North Carolina’s Jackson County, Zurenda makes space for a certain grittiness that is endemic to Southern fiction. In the opening pages, readers are transported to 1959. Delia is midway to her fourth birthday and Eli is celebrating his third. As Delia and Mama tend to marigolds, Eli mistakenly drinks Red Devil lye — a corrosive cleaner that was sometimes used to inflate balloons — from a Coca-Cola bottle. The scene is frenzied and breathless.
Delia remembers, “I watched terrified as two men in white, waist-length coats brought Eli out on a stretcher. His arms bent in at the elbows and stuck out like wings. I saw his mouth opening and closing and then he vomited on himself. I heard him heaving.”
Zurenda says the event was inspired by her first cousin Danny, who also swallowed lye. She wanted to explore how these tragedies change the trajectory of a life. For Eli, the incident yielded a childhood of physical disfigurement and emotional trauma. But he and Delia — his protector — develop an unconditional bond because of these vulnerabilities. “Fate gives with one hand and takes with the other,” the author notes.
In adolescence, the two grow apart in some respects. Eli gradually regains his ability to speak and swallow, and becomes handsome and bold. He challenges the apparent wholesomeness of Green Branch, including antiquated ideas about race, while Delia tends to be straitlaced. But the nature of their relationship soon shifts toward the taboo.
“I didn’t know they would develop sexual feelings toward one another until it happened,” Zurenda says, describing a scene after the pair attend a school dance. “It was inevitable. There was no way out of it for them — or for me.”
Readers are left to grapple with the teens’ unmentionable feelings. And though their intimacy rips at the tapestry of life in Green Branch, it also serves as a reminder that “in a cold, cruel world, love is something stronger that helps us survive,” says Zurenda.
A retired English teacher, Zurenda, also an award-winning short-story writer, released Bells for Eli in early March. It has since been selected as a Winter 2020 “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and a spring-reading pick in Deep South Magazine.
It was during her sophomore year at Converse College that Zurenda discovered Welty, along with the three other 20th-century women authors who transformed Southern literature: Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor.
“It was the impetus that changed my direction from being a music major to an English major,” says Zurenda. “The lives in those stories changed my life.”
Susan Zurenda will be the featured author at a “Books and Bites” luncheon at The 1927 Lake Lure Inn & Spa (2771 Memorial Hwy.) on Wednesday, Aug. 5, at 11am, sponsored by and benefitting the Friends of the Mountain Branch Library. Attendees can register for the luncheon ($25) by calling 828-287-6392. For more information about the author, visit susanzurenda.com.