Book Quote:

“Snakewoman” is a name I picked up in prison, and I’ve never revealed it to an outsider, though I’ve become attached to it in my own mind and in fact have come to think of myself as “Snakewoman.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (NOV 13, 2010)

Robert Hellenga had me spellbound with his first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures. It is one of the most fascinating and sensuous books I’ve ever read. His most recent book, The Snakewoman of Little Egypt, does not quite come up to his first novel. However, he presents the reader with fascinating subject matter and some very erotic writing.

The book starts off with Jackson Carter, a professor of anthropology at a local university in Illinois, pondering his future. Should he stay in Illinois, find a wife and get married or should he return to the Congo to work with the Mbutu where he has a lover and a daughter, both Mbutu? He is currently living in a home bequeathed to him by his friend and fellow anthropologist who worked with him in the Congo. Jackson is not short on girlfriends nor is he short on plans. He is just floundering about what is the right plan for him. He has been ill for many years with Lyme disease which has all but destroyed his health. It took many years to diagnose and he suffers from joint pain, fatigue, and other symptoms. All the sections about him are written in the third person.

The other major character and the real protagonist of the book is “Snakewoman,” Willa Fern’s nickname. All of her chapters are written in the first person. Willa Fern has just been released from prison where she was incarcerated for six years for shooting her abusive husband who put her hand in a box of rattlesnakes which were used for church services. She was able to shoot him in the shoulder and prevent worse from happening to herself. She believes that she was sent to prison only because she was not allowed to take the stand at her trial and tell her story. Once out of prison, Willa Fern changes her name to Sunny, which she hopes reflects her disposition and hopefulness. Her uncle and mentor, now deceased, managed to get her into Thomas Ford College where she plans to study for a four year degree. Interestingly, she is placed in a dorm with an eighteen year old roommate. She realizes this is inappropriate for her, a 35 year old ex-con, and contacts Jackson, where her uncle lived in a garage apartment as a caretaker for many years. Jackson agrees to let her live above the garage as long as she agrees to caretaking duties. A relationship is born.

It doesn’t take long for Sunny and Jackson to become lovers. The novel progresses to the story of Sunny’s involvement in the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following. The signs are “healing the sick, raising the dead, drinking strychnine, handling serpents, speaking in tongues.” Sunny was fourteen when her father died and she met Earl, the preacher of the church. She was sixteen when she married him. Jackson, as a true anthropologist, becomes very interested in Sunny’s ex-church to the point of visiting it himself. The church is in what used to be a gas station and attracts a regular following. This church is in southern Illinois but churches with similar belief systems exist in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia. Sometimes, all the churches would get together for a large convocation. Jackson is particularly interested in the snake handling aspect of the church but has a fascination with Earl as well.

As the novel progresses, Sunny realizes she has inherited a nice sum of money from her uncle, decides to divorce Earl and struggles with her relationship with Jackson. The writing is beautiful, typical of Hellenga, but some of the aspects of the novel don’t ring true. For instance, do most colleges admit felons immediately upon their release from jail? Do they let them room in a dorm? I’m not so sure this is the case. Additionally, Jackson’s study of anthropology crosses so many boundaries that it seems unethical at times. I would have thought there would be some overseeing committee to help him find his way back on track professionally.

The book is fascinating, especially when it deals with the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, and its members. The characterizations of this culture are colorful and well-described. The book builds up slowly and leaves the reader with a feeling that we have had the opportunity to share in the lives of people we would not likely ever meet in our own lives.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 7 readers
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury USA (September 14, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Robert Hellenga
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Suggested reading from the Reading Guide:

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Mudbound by Hilary Jordan

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom


November 13, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Contemporary, Reading Guide, US Midwest

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.