Monday, March 02, 2020

Re-Creating the 1960s and '70s in Bells for Eli, an essay by Susan Beckham Zurenda

Welcome to Susan Beckham Zurenda, who is stopping by with a post about weaving cultural elements from the 1960s-70s into the backdrop of her historical novel Bells for Eli, which is published today by Mercer University Press.


Re-Creating the 1960s and '70s in Bells for Eli
Susan Beckham Zurenda

Who recalls eating Moon Pies in the sun with chocolate dripping down your fingers at the local swimming pool while the Eagle landed on the moon’s Tranquility Base? Or junior high parties where black lights made your teeth glow green while Agent Orange laid waste to jungles in Vietnam? Or making out at drive-in movies in high school while hippies gathered for love-ins at Golden Gate Park? This was my era, a contradictory time teetering between devotion to 1950s conventional values and the “do what you feel” '60s and '70s.

In my novel Bells for Eli, the town and settings are largely imagined, but based on the time and locale of my own youth. My main characters Delia Green and her first cousin Eli Winfield live in the fictitious small town of Green Branch, South Carolina, during this momentous period. Their joys, sorrows, conflicts, and decisions are deeply affected by this time and place.

Against this background, the novel is inspired by a tragic accident my own first cousin suffered as a toddler in the late 1950s. Similar to Eli, my cousin drank from a Coca-Cola bottle filled with Red Devil Lye, a chemical with properties like helium my uncle used to inflate balloons for my cousin’s birthday party. Like Eli, my cousin survived, but his life forever changed.

The cousins in Bells for Eli become unusually close during childhood and adolescence, partly because they live across the street from one another but more because of Eli’s accident. As Eli encounters bullying schoolmates who don’t understand and mock his disfigurement and frailty, Delia becomes his best friend, defender, and his love. In adolescence, the relationship blossoms into an intimacy that cannot be, for they know to love one’s cousin in that way is taboo.

If you’re a Boomer like me, or even if you’re not, you likely think of the 1960s—loosely beginning around 1963 with Kennedy’s assassination and ending around 1974 with Watergate—as a period of rebellion and social change. The era was defined by the counterculture and social revolution involving music, drugs, dress, sexuality, and formality, and the relaxation of social taboos concerning race and gender.

Yet amid this extreme social flux, the small-town South of the 1960s and '70s largely remained an insular time and place. The parents had grown up as children of the Great Depression and wanted their kids to have more. With the US the world’s leading industrial power after WWII, and government support for education, home loans, and a booming economy, achieving the American Dream was a given in the middle to upper middle-class small-town South. A time I well remember.

The '60s activists—culturally significant as they were—occupied the margins of American society. The mainstream in my South Carolina town conducted their business as usual: climbing the career ladder, driving their kids to school, eating dinner together at the same time every evening, living the American Dream of home ownership, nuclear family, and social prestige.

As '60s children, Eli and Delia (like me) are Baby Boomers—the largest single generation until that point in American history. Boomers tremendously affected popular culture and sought to define their identities in numerous ways, particularly through music. And though Delia’s and Eli’s musical tastes sometimes intersect in the songs portrayed in Bells for Eli, their differing preferences contrast the status quo in their small town, and the counterculture’s nonconformity.

Emerging from 1950s rock and roll that celebrated young love and freedom (think Bill Haley and His Comets’ anthem for rebellion in “Rock Around the Clock,” and Elvis’ gyrating hips censored on the Ed Sullivan Show), 1960s music split into several genres, one major divide between soft and hard rock. Exhibiting his rebelliousness, Eli gravitates toward hard rock’s emphasis on overt masculinity and sexuality. Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Grateful Dead typify his taste.

Unlike her cousin, Delia’s music reflects a more conservative bias. She’s attracted to the soft rock of Three Dog Night and The Temptations, and even admits liking Bubble Gum music, a subgenre highlighting innocuous themes like sunshine, toys, and sugary foods.

Still, Delia isn’t completely content, not like her friend Nealy, secure the way things are. Delia desires independence, beginning in grammar school when she chooses a career outfit for her Barbie, not a house dress and apron like her mother wears. Delia has no notion of the coming Women’s Liberation Movement, but she knows herself.

Television also provided Americans with accepted social patterns. Unlike music, however, few shows projected the antiestablishment. Not until 1967’s The Smothers Brothers’ political satire and 1968’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in—a play on the “love-ins” of hippie culture—did programming suggest the counterculture of civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. In the small-town South, people watching these shows often did so on the sly.

More often, television presented idealized white suburban family life. Happy housewife mothers, wise fathers, mischievous but not dangerously rebellious children were constants in shows like Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, and Andy of Mayberry. As in these programs, traditional family values, hospitality and proper behavior are expectations in 1960s Green Branch. Pretending life is good is a given, even if it isn’t.

Eli’s everyday family life is not the norm, but his mother knows how to make everything seem right. Mary Lily epitomizes graciousness and decorum, rarely confronting her husband’s alcoholic rants and violence. She is mostly passive toward Gene’s dysfunction, common for 1960s wives when divorce was rare, especially in the small-town South.

The frictions between expected conduct in that era’s South,  and the looming rebellion during Delia and Eli’s late adolescence, propel Bells for Eli toward its dramatic conclusion, when Delia discovers a shocking secret and truths about Eli she has never known.


More about Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press; March 2, 2020):

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 1970s. But Eli's tragic accident changes the trajectory of their lives and of those connected to them. As Eli struggles for acceptance in childhood, Delia passionately devotes herself to defending him. Both are determined to safeguard the other.
Susan Beckham Zurenda
(photo credit: Anna Beckham)

Bells for Eli is a lyrical and tender exploration of the coming of age 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.

About the author

Susan Beckham Zurenda taught college and high school English for many years and now works as a publicist for Magi Time Literary Publicity. A recipient of several regional awards for her fiction, including The South Carolina Fiction Project, The Alabama Writers Conclave First Novel Chapter, The Porter Fleming Literary Competition, and The Southern Writers Symposium, she has also published numerous stories and nonfiction pieces in literary journals. Zurenda lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her website is

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