Donna Seaman reviews ‘Snakewoman of Little Egypt'

December 2, 2010

By Donna Seaman

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Author Robert Hellenga tells the story of Sunny who grew up in a snake-handling church in Illinois’ Little Egypt area.

Author Robert Hellenga sets many of his novels in Italy but in his latest book, the English professor turned to a setting much closer to home. "Snakewoman of Little Egypt" takes place in Central Illinois, Helenga’s home base for the past 40 years.

Book critic Donna Seaman found that the region provided solid ground for the novel’s imaginative search for meaning and connection in the world.


Jackson Carter Jones is an associate professor of anthropology at a central Illinois university that may or may not resemble Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. That’s where Hellenga himself has long been a professor.

But Jackson doesn’t seem professorial as he sits on the deck with a gun, waiting for the groundhog that’s been burrowing under his house. And he isn’t feeling so great. Jackson has been battling Lyme disease for two discouraging years. His handyman Warren used to take care of the groundhogs. But Warren has died, and now Jackson not only must contend with the critters, he also promised to look after Warren’s niece. Willa Fern is in prison for serving time for shooting, but not killing, her husband Earl.

Jackson has another ailment: his heart is still in Africa. It was there, as a graduate student, he studied pygmies. Spellbound in paradise, he cast aside his “anthropological detachment” and went native, as they say, until he was forced to leave behind his lover and their daughter, who hadn’t yet been born when he was deported.

When Willa walks free, she looks up at the blue sky and gives herself a new name: Sunny. From then on, Jackson and Sunny take turns narrating the rest of the novel. It’s a subtle duel of words and worldviews craftily orchestrated by Hellenga. So much so, the reader is constantly reevaluating her impressions of each character. This is a book that sheds its skin chapter by chapter.

We learn that Sunny shot her husband Earl because he forced her, at gunpoint, the story goes, to “put her arm in a box of rattlesnakes.” Yes, Sunny is Snakewoman, and Little Egypt is at the southern tip of Illinois. And Earl is pastor of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, a church of snake-handlers, speaking in tongues, the drinking strychnine, and the laying on of hands. Sunny knows her snakes, and yes, she was, as her people say, “serpent-bit.”

For Sunny, who married Earl when she was 16, prison was a sanctuary. Finally, away from all the shouting, the trances, the death-daring ceremonies, the threats, she can think. She earns her GED, and she’s now, thanks to her uncle, looking forward to college. One visit to the dormitory inspires her to move into her uncle’s old digs above Jackson’s garage, and in no time she and Jackson are way more than close neighbors.

So there it is: the academic and the downstate snakewoman eager to improve herself. It’s a perfect Pygmalion scenario. Until Earl shows up.

Hellenga is quite the snake himself in this sly, deliciously escalating, sexy, and incisive tale of exploded assumptions. As Jackson and Sunny circle each other and volley the story back-and-forth, as snakes coil and slither and strike––snakes seen with a biologist’s eye, and snakes “encrusted with mythology,” as Sunny puts it––Hellenga contrasts various forms of faith, ritual, and knowledge, questions the divides between science and religion, desire and delusion. Handle this whip-smart, deadpan funny, shape-shifting, and electrifying novel with care, and you will see the light.