Robert Hellenga's "Snakewoman of Little Egypt," reviewed by Carolyn See

By Carolyn See
Friday, September 17, 2010


By Robert Hellenga

Bloomsbury. 342 pp. $25

Don't start reading this book if you've got a dinner party coming up in the next few days, or a committee meeting or a golf game. You'll be calling people up with fake excuses and feeling bad about yourself -- at least that's what happened to me. I'd never heard of Robert Hellenga; I didn't think a book with the name "Snakewoman of Little Egypt" would hold any appeal for me at all. I was deep in another long, portentous novel that had been extravagantly praised by another major American newspaper, and feeling that I was locked in an endless civics lesson that was bound to do me good, if only I could get through the book. Then I opened "Snakewoman," which makes no claim at all to being a great American novel, only a wonderful one.

Jackson Jones, a 40-year-old professor of anthropology, teaches at a university in west central Illinois. He's enduring a mild midlife crisis: Should he stay here in sheltered academia for the rest of his life, or return to where he's done most of his fieldwork -- a place deep in the Congolese forest, close to the Ugandan border? He went native when he was there, acquired a cute girlfriend only three feet tall, with her teeth filed to sharp points, and had a daughter by her. But he's been sick, and he loves the comforts of his "real" home, this inviting campus in the heart of a cozily attractive Midwestern town.

The place where he lives now is extremely nice -- an appealing old house willed to him by his French anthropologist mentor, a giant in his field who believed that he had found the actual site of the Garden of Eden, again, deep in the forest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. That anthropologist left his notes to Jackson, who hesitates to publish them. It's a little outre, isn't it, to claim to have found Paradise?

In fact, Paradise might be right here in Illinois. After returning from his years of fieldwork, Jackson is bowled over simply by going to the grocery store. As he takes in the balsamic vinegar and fresh mussels, the author muses, "You could count on radicchio and fennel and arugula in the produce section. He ate well." Of course, over there in Congo Paradise, they feasted on termites and boiled monkey meat and sometimes elephant. All very good.

The late caretaker of the house Jackson inherited has willed him another sort of bequest. The caretaker's niece, Willa Fern, who will soon change her name to Sunny, has been serving five years in prison for shooting her husband (but not killing him). The sentence is light because her husband gave her every reason to shoot him. Earl is a zealous, snake-handling preacher of a very small church, who forced his wife to put her arm in a box full of snakes to test whether she was cheating on him. She took this very badly and shot Earl the first chance she got. She has just been released from prison, and before he died, the caretaker asked Jackson to keep an eye on her -- whatever that means.

Sunny, meantime, has decided to make some changes in her own life. While in prison she lost her faith: "God was a lot like Earl," she says. "A kind of a bully. The kind of guy who will lie and steal and cheat, slap you around. Look at the Garden. Look what happened to Adam and Eve. 'Disobey me, will you? I'll whup your tails until they won't hold shucks.' " Sunny is content to be merely hardworking and happy. She dropped out of high school to marry Earl; she knows nothing of the world except snake-handling and prison. Now that she's out, everything is new to her; she's drunk with possibilities. She's moved into a garage apartment on Jackson's property; she got her GED behind bars and is about to enroll in college.

Of course, she and Jackson start an affair, but he already has something going with a lady professor who teaches creative writing and is married to a very nice minister. And Sunny has to worry about Earl, who has long since recovered from his wife's gunshots and is prowling about. But life is nice. Sunny learns to cook -- veal Marengo with crayfish and poached eggs. She's dazzled by the idea of writing fiction and speaking French and learning about the big-bang theory.

When Earl does come around, we see he's not such a bad fellow, just nuts. His church advocates handling snakes to push the edge of the cosmic envelope, to blur the line where the self meets the larger world. The oldest woman in his congregation has been prayed back from the dead a couple of times, and she's seen her version of the Garden of Eden, too.

All these characters have the sense to know that they're already there -- in the Garden. They practice their French, cook wonderful dishes, take long car rides, write novels, play timpani. It's not that they don't have their torments; they just don't value them very much. Sunny gets a chance to use her snake-handling skills by signing up for a biology experiment that involves moving a bunch of snakes from one place to another. Jackson -- an anthropologist, after all -- gets involved with Earl's little church. What a strange version of civilization they've got going down there in Illinois! There's no question of Jackson and Earl fighting over Sunny; they all like each other too well for that.

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