On the morning of his 40th birthday, anthropology professor Jackson Jones contemplates his future: Should he go back to Africa, where he did his fieldwork, and live with the Mbuti, or should he marry and settle down in the Midwest, where he now teaches?
On the morning of her release from prison, Sunny, who grew up in a snake-handling 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 snake handlers. 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.
"The serpentine story solidifies into a captivating and original take on the strange ways of redemption." (Publishers Weekly)
“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?" (Maxine Kumin)
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“This book is chock full of lost potential. A novel should be a long answer to a good question. The author had a brilliant notion to create a morally ambiguous situation--one that *could* have illuminated the culturally relevant topics of religious abuse, deconversion, and cast an anthropological eye on religious ecstasy. Instead, Hellenga decides to spend page after page lecturing us on completely irrelevant topics that do not lend even the slightest contribution to answering the excellent questions his novel puts forth. It reminds me of a student who had to write a 10,000 word essay for his history professor, and decided to copy-and-paste 4,000 words from a science paper he just wrote in order to make the word count.
The pygmies were not relevant. Playing the timpani is grossly irrelevant. The whole shoppingcart subplot was irrelevant. The French language lessons were irrelevant. He even inserted a slide show through Paris: IRRELEVANT!
This novel is badly in need of a good editor. It's a bait-and-switch; Hellenga promises a fascinating glimpse into a woman who deconverts from a snake-handling cult, and then says
Coleen Marlo is a FANTASTIC reader. She clearly delineated all the characters, even the male ones. When a character was crying, she sounded like she was crying. She's masterful.
There were a few times when she would have benefited from a better director. She repeatedly used the phrase
Not what I expected.