The most satisfying component of beautifully crafted fiction is the consuming narrative of an author’s vision, the impermanence of time captured as characters come to life and demand to tell their story. Hellenga is one of those rare artists able to spin mesmerizing tales of unique individuals - their passions, dreams, mistakes and seemingly random encounters with fate.
In 1999, Sunny has just been released from prison for shooting her husband, Earl, pastor of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, a religious sect that practices the ritual of snake handling near the Little Egypt region of the southern tip of Illinois. Even after years of incarceration, Sunny fears that Earl will eventually track her down. Registered at Thomas Ford University in Illinois, Sunny plans to temporarily occupy a garage apartment on the property of Jackson Carter Jones, an anthropology professor returned from Africa, where he was forced to leave behind a native woman and their child.
Life intervenes. Lyme disease puts Jackson out of commission for two years, though he dreams often of returning to Africa and reuniting with his lover and their child. Then Sunny enters appears on the horizon, ready to change her future: “I may have been in prison but I felt like I was finally free.” Sunny eclipses even the devoted Claire, one of Jackson’s former girlfriends. Claire is married to an Episcopal priest but sneaks back late at night to Jackson’s compound for occasional trysts. Best intentions aside, Jackson is a habit Claire has been unable to break.
Two worlds collide in Snakewoman of Little Egypt. Sunny straddles the chasm between the lure of academia and the implied threat of Earl’s domination through religion. Bullied by a husband who forces her to reach into a box of poisonous snakes as a trial of fidelity similar to a medieval test of witchcraft, the arcane beliefs of Earl’s sect are all Sunny has experienced until prison, where education offers the a way out. To Sunny, Jackson is as exotic as the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, an anthropologist with a broad worldview who favors French cooking, cultural variety and Sunny in his bed.
When Earl reenters Sunny’s life, her separate universes are threatened. Earl takes great pains to befriend the anthropologist, colorfully describing the rituals of his worship and the cultural value. Caught off guard by Earl’s larger-than-life overtures, Jackson becomes interested in recording this ancient practice, trusting Earl that he will not be expected to join in the handling of snakes.
Suddenly, the veneer of civilization is stripped away, Jackson seduced by the terrible beauty of a two-headed snake, hopelessly immersed in religious ritual while Sunny clings to the parameters of a more reasonable existence. A vicious twist, violence and a courtroom drama lead to personal revelations, regrets and another poignant lesson on the brief encounters that define an individual’s journey in the world. Literary, emotionally satisfying and filled with moments of clarity, Hellenga’s novel is a rich reward for those who open this novel.