Summary and book reviews of Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga

Snakewoman of Little Egypt

A Novel

By Robert Hellenga

Snakewoman of Little Egypt
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2010,
    352 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2011,
    352 pages.

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Book Summary

On the morning of her release from prison, Sunny, who grew up in a snakehandling church in the Little Egypt region of Southern Illinois, rents a garage apartment from Jackson. She's been serving a five-year sentence for shooting, but not killing, her husband, the pastor of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, after he forced her at gunpoint to put her arm in a box of rattlesnakes.

Sunny and Jackson become lovers, but they're pulled in different directions. Sunny, drawn to science and eager to put her snake handling past behind her, enrolls at the university. Jackson, however, takes a professional interest in the religious ecstasy exhibited by the snakehandlers. Push comes to shove in a novel packed with wit, substance, and emotional depth. Snakewoman of Little Egypt delivers Robert Hellenga at the top of his form.

1

On his fortieth birthday - August 6, 1999 - Jackson Carter Jones, associate professor of anthropology at Thomas Ford University in west central Illinois, ate a poached egg for breakfast and then sat outside on the deck. It had rained recently - twice - and the stream, Johnson Creek, which sometimes dried up at the end of the summer, was full. When it was full, it emptied into the Lakota River, which emptied into the Mississippi. He was trying to decide his own fate, take it into his own hands. He took a coin out of his pocket. A quarter. One of the new ones, Pennsylvania, the American eagle replaced by an allegorical female figure. He flipped it. It landed on the glass table top, bounced off onto the plank floor. The dog, a black lab with a little bit of Rottweiler showing in her broad chest, jumped. The coin rolled in a big circle, then a smaller circle, and finally fell through a crack in the deck onto the sand and grit below, where a big groundhog had made his den.

...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Snakewoman of Little Egypt takes place in 1999 and 2000, a recent past that readers should remember well. What period details from the turn of the millennium come to life in the novel? Why do you think Robert Hellenga set his novel at this time instead of the present day?


  2. As soon as she steps out of prison, Sunny declares, "I used to be Willa Fern. Now I'm Sunny." (35) What does this new name mean to Sunny? How does her outlook on life change in this moment?


  3. Consider how Sunny and Jackson tell their own stories. How do the chapters in Sunny's voice differ from the chapters told from Jackson's point of view?


  4. Discuss what snakes mean to each character in the novel. Why do Earl, DX, and the followers of their church handle snakes? ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Snakewoman of Little Egypt is a classic love triangle tale. The story balances Sunny's journey from the mystic world of Pentecostal religion into the modern world of science with Jackson's quest to leave the modern world behind in order to recover his incandescent African experience. Themes - good and evil, woman and man, religion and science, truth and falsehood - abound, but they do not overwhelm a genuinely exciting story.   (Reviewed by Judy Krueger).

Full Review Members Only (962 words).

Media Reviews
Author Blurb Mary Doria Russell
Dead solid perfect. The truest and most moving portrait of the romance of research and the lyricism of learning that you will ever find. Plus: a good solid story, right down the center. I loved this book.

Author Blurb Maxine Kumin
Hellenga is fearlessly inventive. Could anybody else combine snake handling, the Ituri pygmies of the Congo, life in a women's prison, learning to play timpani, a murder trial, and a poignant love affair in three-hundred-odd fast-paced, highly readable pages?

Publishers Weekly

[The] serpentine story solidifies into a captivating and original take on the strange ways of redemption.

Booklist

Starred Review. Hellenga fills the novel not only with fascinating details of snake handling and the religious ecstasy it inspires but also with a beguiling portrait of the comfort and shared intimacy of domestic life… Yes, it is a melancholy story, but it is also immensely satisfying and even uplifting in that unique way that only deeply felt life can provide.

Library Journal

[Hellenga] mesmerizes with this brainy study of snakes and snake-handling churches, love, independence, and, yes, even the power of timpani drumming. Another flawless performance.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Gloriously quirky… three reasons to love Hellenga: He's a fine storyteller; he gives us new eyes; he restores our sense of wonder. Attention must be paid.

The Washington Post - Carolyn See

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… Snakewoman… makes no claim at all to being a great American novel, only a wonderful one.

Reader Reviews
Bonnie Brody

Interesting subject matter and sensuous language
Hellenga is the author of one of my favorite books, The 16 Pleasures. While this book does not come up to this, it has its definite merits. It is about a college professor named Jackson who is dealing with an existential crisis - should he return ...   Read More

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Religious Snake Handling

Pentecostalism is a sect of Christianity that originated in rural areas of the USA in the early 1900s. Members believe that baptism in the Holy Spirit results in a personal experience of God, but salvation requires that they practice the teachings of Jesus Christ. They take every word of the Bible as literal truth and act on those words in order to be saved and be assured of entering Heaven.

George Went Hensley began to practice snake handling while a minister of the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee (a Pentecostal church which today claims 6 million members in 150 countries). Around 1909, his church became aware of his activities and prohibited it. Eventually, sometime in the 1920s, Hensley started his own church naming it...

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