A childhood accident involving red devil lye inspired Susan Zurenda’s debut novel, “Bells for Eli.”
The book follows the lives of first cousins Eli and Delia who grow up across the street from one another in a small South Carolina town in the 1960s and ’70s. Things get complicated when Eli accidentally swallows Red Devil Lye and nearly dies.
“It’s actually inspired by something that happened to a first cousin of mine when he was two years old,” Zurenda says. “He survived, of course, but his life was really compromised.”
Like Zurenda’s cousin, Eli is bullied and tortured as a child because of the metal tracheotomy tube in his throat.
“He had a funny string running behind his ear, and a hole in his stomach where he was fed and he smelled bad, and all these things. So with ‘Bells of Eli,’ I wanted to look at how something that happens to you like that in early childhood sort of sets your destiny,” Zurenda says.
In the novel, Delia — the book’s narrator and protagonist — becomes Eli’s friend and only defender. But as they get older, and Eli’s physical scars fade, it becomes Delia’s job to protect Eli from himself.
“He has a hard time trusting people. He’s a risk-taker,” Zurenda says. “It has a lifelong effect, not just physically but emotionally.”
The book also explores the burgeoning feelings between Eli and Delia, maneuvers around class differences and social constraints, and ultimately tells the coming-of-age story of how resilience and love conquer all.
A retired high school teacher from Spartanburg, Zurenda had previously written short fiction for years but never had the time to pursue a novel until she sat down to write “Bells for Eli.”
“I taught English for 33 years, and I raised two daughters. I took care of dying parents … so I just never had the time, but the desire, I think, had long been there,” Zurenda says.
When she finally had a manuscript, Zurenda was lucky enough to secure an agent, Marly Rusoff, who represented Pat Conroy, and after some trial and error, a publisher.
Released by Mercer University Press in early March, the reception for “Bells for Eli” has been “very good, considering the circumstances,” Zurenda says. Her eight-state book tour was canceled in its first week, so Zurenda is now trying to promote her first novel online and at virtual events.
“I’m looking forward to getting back on the road,” she says with a laugh.
“Bells for Eli” is available on Amazon, Indiebound and barnesandnoble.com.