Arts
6:25 am
Mon December 2, 2013

Trust The Snakewoman? Novelist Defends His Narrator

Sunny is a woman just released from prison for attempting to kill her husband, a snake-handling preacher. Jackson is an anthropologist who falls in love with Sunny, but then joins her estranged husband to research religious snake handling.

This is the basic premise of Snakewoman of Little Egypt, a novel by Robert Hellenga.

The book is unusual in that Sunny, the protagonist, tells her story in first person while other characters are portrayed in third person. Hellenga says he had good luck with first-person female narrators in previous books, such as The Fall of a Sparrow (1998) and The Sixteen Pleasures (1995).

While researching Snakewoman, Hellenga read transcriptions of oral histories to understand the voice of religious snake handlers. He says this was especially helpful when creating the headstrong and fiercely independent Sunny. "I just had a feeling for that kind of sassy voice," Hellenga says.

Sunny and her husband Earl use phrases like getting "backed up on the Lord," when referring to their occasional drinking binges. Their speech, like snake-handling, originates in Appalachia although Hellenga puts them in deep southern Illinois. The area around Cairo, Ill. (known as Little Egypt) has strong cultural ties to eastern Appalachia.

Sunny describes her marriage as full of violence. At one point, Earl accuses her of adultery. He insists the Lord will reveal the truth, so he grabs her arm and pushes it toward their collection of poisonous snakes:

He took the top off an aquarium that had a couple of copperheads and an eastern diamondback. Your diamondback is meaner than the local timber rattlers, and this one hadn't been prayed over. He got it from a man at the church in Middlesboro. Traded a bunch of copperheads and a massasauga for it. I told him he could just go ahead and shoot me. That's how down I was. I didn't care. And I'd rather get shot than serpent bit. But he said if I didn't put my arm in the box, he'd force my head down in it and I could take the bite in my eye. So I put my arm in. Nothing happened. then he started banging on the glass with the butt of his pistol, and the snake bit my thumb.

It was a "dry bite," according to Sunny. Minutes later, as Earl opens the refrigerator, she picks up his gun and shoots him in the shoulder. She spends the next six years in prison.

When Sunny gets out, she rents a room in Jackson's home in western Illinois. The two begin an affair and, when Sunny files for divorce, Earl drives up to take her back home. Sunny refuses. That night, Earl gets drunk and wrecks his truck. Lying in a hospital bed, he tells Jackson his version of the shooting incident:

But what I will tell you is that she got a snake out of the shed and was trying to get it to bite me while I was taking a nap. And she started hollerin' that she got bit, and I woke up and went out to the kitchen to get me a glass of milk, and she shot me ... Oh, she got bit all right, but I don't know if it was that diamondback like she said. More likely it was Tricky, that was our pet coon. She told people it was a dry bite, but it was just the coon.

So who's right? Hellenga says he intended to cast doubt on Earl, not Sunny. "If she brought the snake into the house," the author says, "what happened to the snake?"

But after rereading the book, Hellenga told WNIJ he could understand why a reader might doubt Sunny's version, and how this could make her an untrustworthy narrator.

Robert Hellenga, author of Snakewoman of Little Egypt
Robert Hellenga, author of Snakewoman of Little Egypt

"But that's good," Hellenga says. "Any time someone lies in a novel, it makes things more interesting."

And what is the origin of snake handling? Hellenga points to a phrase from the Gospel of Mark:

In my name ... They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

Robert Hellenga is a distinguished writer in residence at Knox College. His seventh novel comes out in July.

Next Monday, our Winter Book Series continues with Troy Unincorporated, a collection of poems by Francesca Abbate.

The 2013 Winter Book Series airs Mondays in December. Listen during Morning Edition after NPR news at 6:30 and 8:30. That's on 89.5 FM or www.WNIJ.org.