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The Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Written, smitten, and bitten with conflict

A Person, A Place, and an Object

It’s a common creative writing assignment. You pick a person from a list of possibilities. Then you choose a place and an object from other lists. You take those three things and create a story out of it.

I kept thinking about that as I read Robert Hellenga’s novel, The Snakewoman of Little Egypt. It almost sounds like the opening of a joke: “You’ve got an anthropologist, a rattlesnake, and the city of Paris. . . ”

If you have ophidiophobia, the abnormal fear of snakes, or herpetophobia, the fear of reptiles, you probably won’t even read this post. If you’re only slightly creeped out by snakes, you might, but you still might wonder why I chose to read this book. I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t have if it had not been a book club assignment, chosen for these four reasons:

  1. The book takes place in our home state, Illinois

  2. .Much of the setting involves a small liberal arts college, and many of the group taught at the local community college or were former educators.

  3. The author, Robert Hellenga, taught English Literature at a college in Illinois and has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Illinois Arts Council.

  4. One member of our book club pushes the envelope, urging us to question our beliefs and to dissect the meaning of faith.

Written. Smittten. Bitten.

Hellenga’s The Snake Woman of Little Egypt takes an anthropologist, Jackson Jones, best known for his studies of the Mtubi people of Africa, and throws him into a small-town college in Illinois. It was here that Jackson was first exposed to the practice of snake-handling and its consequences. He has also “inherited” the protection of his deceased caretaker’s niece, Willa Fern.

Willa Fern has been serving prison time for shooting her husband, Earl, the pastor of The Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, when he made her put her arm into a box of rattlesnakes.

When Willa Fern is released from prison, Jackson goes to pick her up. Willa Fern promptly changes her name to Sunny so she can start off her new life with an upbeat, positive vibe, and she does everything she can to stay away from Earl, including divorcing him.

The book weaves together characters and unusual situations: Sunny’s desire to succeed academically, Jackson’s affair with his old lover, Claire, who is now married to an Episcopal priest, Claire’s friendship with Sunny and her use of Sunny’s experiences to create her own novel, Jackson and Sunny’s love relationship, and Jackson’s desire as an anthropologist to study the snake-handling culture.

The book culminates in a bite, a death, a murder trial, a novel, and a trip to Paris with all three main characters “finding themselves” in unexpected places.

Out-of-the-box situations

Did I love the book? Did I weep when I read it? Was I sad when it ended?


Did I find it fascinating?

You bet.

Regardless of the fact that I normally wouldn’t look at a book with the word “snake” in the title, I have always been interested in the cult of snake-handling, a phenomenon I first heard about when I lived in Kentucky. And yes, there are still numerous places in the United States where serpents are part of the religious ritual.

The most thought-provoking element of the book is the question of faith, and the absolute literal use of the Bible, most notably the drinking of strychnine as a test:

“…they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” — Mark 16:18.

The signs indicated in the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following are healing the sick, raising the dead, drinking strychnine, handling serpents, speaking in tongues. Jackson’s perceptions are forever changed after participating in every activity from the foot-washing of other church members, to joining in congregational music, to handling a two-headed rattlesnake at a regional gathering.

The main plot of The Snakewoman of Little Egypt intrigued me, but it was more than that. I “get” the whole teaching-study-learn-write-understand-more culture that Sunny, Claire, and Jackson were involved in. Even though I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, I wanted to see what happened to them. The unusual plot situations created by Hellenga compelled me to keep going, to see how it was all going to end.

Out-of-the-box plotting, for sure

As a reader, I don’t want to get into the habit of only reading certain things. I want to explore the universe, deepen my understanding of the world, and try new things.

The Snakewoman of Little Egypt is definitely a different kind of read for me, but I’m glad I did it.

Try it. You too, may be bitten and smitten by the unusual circumstances you find yourself in while reading it.


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