cover image Snakewoman of Little Egypt

Snakewoman of Little Egypt

Robert Hellenga, Bloomsbury, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-1-60819-262-5

Hellenga (The Sixteen Pleasures) takes on the dramatic lives of Willa Fern Cochrane—who rechristens herself Sunny after being released from prison—and Jackson Jones, an anthropology professor and a friend of Sunny's late uncle Warren. Sunny, who grew up in a serpent-handling church in the Little Egypt area of southern Illinois, ended up in prison after shooting her husband, Earl, when he forced her at gunpoint to stick her arm into a box of rattlesnakes. As the novel starts, Sunny is enrolled at Thomas Ford University, where Jackson teaches. As Jackson and Sunny get closer, each is drawn deeper into the other's world: Jackson becomes fascinated by the church Sunny grew up in—where Earl is still pastor—and Sunny becomes a star biology student with a special interest in venomous snakes and also an accomplished student in Jackson's ex-girlfriend's writing class. Just as things are settling, an unexpected and tragic twist strikes, forcing a tough reckoning for all involved. Though slow to start, the serpentine story solidifies into a captivating and original take on the strange ways of redemption. (Sept.)