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  • Writer's pictureSusan Zurenda

Though I’ve taken my fair share of physical risks throughout my life, I had managed to reach a mature middle age without a broken bone, until this Thanksgiving. While my husband was at a friend’s turkey fry that morning, I had time for a walk before we were to travel the hour’s drive for our Thanksgiving meal and celebration. An ordinary three or so mile trek, mind you, no risk involved, on the same route I’ve walked for more than 25 years.

It was a sunny, mild morning with not a cloud disrupting the blue canvas above. All was right with the world. Then, walking along a short rural stretch between neighborhoods, I saw a chocolate brown vehicle approaching at a good clip, coming at me over the white line along the road’s edge. My thoughts vacillated absurdly between wanting to yell at the car—or it could have been a small SUV—to move over, and telling myself to jump.

Within what I’m sure wasn’t more than one or two seconds—though in reflection it seems much longer—I pivoted to the left and saved my life. My instant turn at an angle to the left meant instead of the vehicle flinging me head-on into the road, it pitched me off the road when it struck my left leg. I watched my snugly tied shoe fly off my left foot through space and land a few feet away from where I lay. Vaguely, I heard the vehicle continue down the road, never slowing to see if I was alive or dead.

For a few minutes I lay where I’d alighted about eight feet from the pavement. A couple of cars went by, but they didn’t see me among the weeds and vines. When I could, I crawled to retrieve my cell phone, not far from my shoe which I glanced at but didn’t have the strength to reclaim. While I waited on my husband, I tested my foot which had started hurting terrifically. I tried to move it back and forth with my hands, but it moved like a doll’s head attached by rubber bands to its plastic torso.

To bring this ordeal quickly to its physical conclusion for you, I report that my ankle was broken in several places, and my leg was a sore, awful mess. My husband said it looked like someone had taken a fish scaler to it. He’s good like that with descriptions.

But a skilled surgeon has put my ankle back together with screws, pins, and a metal plate, and I’m mending. The person who hit me will not be caught because I cannot identify the vehicle, nor could I have possibly seen the license tag as I was flung aloft. A lot of my friends have focused on the unconscionable wrong of the driver who hit and ran. It’s a situation that resonates, I think, because I was any ordinary person out engaging in an ordinary pleasure on a lovely day. And while I also would like to see the unknown driver made accountable, I’ve not concentrated so much on this aspect of the accident. I have focused on my life.

I realize now that being alive is a miracle every day. And I perceive some situations about my fellow men and women differently, too. Until now, I couldn’t possibly understand what it must be like to go through life—without hope of change—with a physical handicap. I think of my beloved Aunt Emily whose right leg had to be amputated in her later years. How she continued to think of others more than herself. How did she do that? Oh, what we take for granted.

I want to see justice, but in a much larger way than punishing one uncaring driver who hit me. Join me in advocating for safer conditions for all pedestrians, runners, and cyclists who have as much right to use roads as any motorized vehicle does.

And by the way, my surgeon says I’ll be on two feet when my book tour starts in March. How lucky am I.

  • Writer's pictureSusan Zurenda

Here I am—after teaching literature and composition to thousands of high school and college students for umpteen years in upstate South Carolina—the author of a debut novel, Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press, March 2020). What I wanted for my students—to see literature as a mirror of who we are—is what I hope readers will discover in my novel. No matter who you are, when or where you were born, or how you live—I hope the lives of Delia and Eli and those connected to them will speak to you.

My novel is inspired by an incident that actually happened to a first cousin when he was very young, on his second birthday. As is the case in the novel with my character Ellison (Eli) Winfield, my cousin saw a Coca-Cola bottle sitting on the porch steps at his home and drank from it. Instead of Coke, though, the bottle was filled with Red Devil Lye, a chemical with properties like helium. As the story was told to me, my uncle had been placing balloons over the neck of the bottle to inflate them for the birthday party. Like Eli, my cousin survived the accident, but his life was forever changed.

Unlike Eli’s cousin Adeline (Delia) Green, I did not grow up in the same town as my cousin, and most of what I know of his challenging childhood came to me second hand long after my childhood. My novel is an imagining of Eli and Delia growing up across the street from each other in a small Southern town in the 60’s and early 70’s, developing a deep and uncommon love as they come of age.

During my own adolescence I saw more of my cousin than I had as a child. By that time, we lived about an hour’s drive apart between my small town of Lancaster, SC, and the big city of Charlotte, NC, where he lived. No longer outwardly a victim of his accident, my cousin was a handsome and charismatic young man. Like my cousin, my character Eli in adolescence is a confident and handsome young man. And though my character’s development is not that of my real-life cousin, I have given Eli a self-assured and generous nature like my cousin possessed.

I’ll be back soon with more thoughts. In the meantime, I hope this background on Bells for Eli helps whet your reading appetite for the book’s release on March 2, 2020.

  • Writer's pictureSusan Zurenda

I had the privilege of reading a paragraph-length excerpt from Bells for Eli at the Parapalooza event at SIBA (Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance) this weekend. How different it was going to SIBA as an author for the first time, rather than as a publicist as I’ve done in the past. This year I wore both hats. And had a great time!

There were 14 authors who read to an audience of booksellers, publishers, and authors at Parapalooza, held in the bar amid much festivity (understatement) at the hotel where the trade show took place in Spartanburg, SC. The passage I chose takes place on Valentine’s Day in 1964, when my main characters Delia and Eli are in third grade. Ostracized for his fraility and physical disfigurement, Eli receives no Valentines in the box he decorated for the occasion. In this excerpt, his cousin feels his pain. Hope you’ll read my selection below!

Eli didn’t take his Valentine box home to show it off to his parents. He threw it into the tall metal trashcan at the end of our hall as we were leaving school. The halls had mostly cleared. The sound made a hollow thud in the empty bin. “I hate them,” he said. Of course, he could see my box (full of cards) tucked under my arm. I was sorry it was too big to fit in my book satchel so he wouldn’t have to see.I shifted my box under the arm holding my book bag, leaving my left hand free. I reached out and took Eli’s hand. At first his fingers hung limp in mine, not consenting to my gesture.  Then finally his grip tightened. We walked that way until we exited into a cold, clear day. He dropped my hand in front of the building where the cars picked up children. He didn’t want anyone to see him holding on to me.On our walk home along the sidewalk, I remarked on the bare winter trees, how they looked like skeletons. He zipped up his coat, not really answering, but nodding, more or less. He was a proud, lonely boy. I loved him.

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