I had not previously read a book by Robert Hellenga, although he has already published five novels, but I was intrigued by the title of his latest. After all, women's mythical history with snakes stretches back to Genesis and beyond, and I remember reading with great pleasure Marion Zimmer Bradley's Firebrand, in which a snakewoman plays a key role during the Trojan War. But who knew that right now in America we still have fundamentalist Christian sects handling snakes as a means of avoiding hell and reaching heaven? Sunny, formerly known as Willa Fern Cochrane, was born and raised in the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following in southeastern Illinois and married to its most powerful preacher until she got "backed up on God" and took justice into her own hands. As I read, I found myself wondering whether Hellenga named Sunny's ex-husband Earl after the infamous Dixie Chicks song "Goodbye Earl."
Jackson Carter Jones, a forty-year-old associate professor of anthropology, is another fatalistic character. He is just recovering from a severe case of Lyme disease when Sunny enters his life, but his true personal crisis stems from years of fieldwork in the Huri Forest of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where he fathered a daughter with an Mbuti pygmy. There he had experienced "ecstasy, or joy, or maybe simply a settled conviction of well-being, of being at home in the universe, of being where he belonged punctuated by periods of incandescent oceanic feeling." Nothing in his safe, predictable Illinois college town can measure up to that.
The love affair between Sunny and Jackson is told with wonderful compassion and plenty of well-written sex scenes. I was charmed by Sunny's toughness and Jackson's vulnerability. I learned about the rituals and beliefs of some Pentecostal churches (the snake handling scenes are thrilling and creepy), the methods of rattlesnake research in a modern biology department, French cooking on par with Julia Child, and the legal questions concerning the defensible use of force. Hellenga packs enormous content into a story that nevertheless offers effortless reading.
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.
This review was originally published in November 2010, and has been updated for the September 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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