Wednesday, September 29, 2010

This is something I didn't know I'd ever discuss here

When we were in Tennessee, Joseph--my-cousin-who-is-my-extra-brother--and I exchanged a stack of books. We do this occasionally since we're both voracious readers and have overlapping interests. He lent me two Lawrence Blocks, The Perfect Storm, LA Confidential, and the book I'm gonna tell you about now: Salvation on Sand Mountain, a memoir by Dennis Covington.

That was the one I picked up first, and I can't really figure out why, because it has a picture, not a drawing mind you, but a photograph, of a woman holding a ginormous rattlesnake on the cover.

Yup, it's a memoir about snake handling. Why I was drawn t0 it, I don't know because I am utterly terrified of snakes. Once we went to a family camp. Darren and Lucy went on a boat ride, and I took Elaine, who was a baby at the time, on a walk. We were on a steep hill, so I was carrying her up it instead of using the stroller. As I walked up the path, I heard a soft rattling sound in the grass nearby. To this day I don't know what that rattle was, but as I held my darling baby oh-so-close and pressed my face to her downy little head, I whispered, "Sister, if a snake comes across this path, it's every girl for herself."

I don't even want to think about snakes, let alone read about them--nevertheless, I was compelled to pick up Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.

Dennis Covington was sent, as a journalist, to cover an attempted murder trial of a pastor who tried to kill his wife with rattlesnakes. I thought the book would mainly cover the trial and its details, but it only spent a brief amount of time on that and honestly, that is a good thing because I don't mean to be rude, I really don't, but those were some insane, trashy people and the less time spent on their antics the better. Trust me. You can hardly believe what happened. As my dad says, "There's no such thing as fiction."

The book is really about what happened after--how Dennis Covington became friends with the people at the snake handling church up on Sand Mountain after their pastor got put in jail. He and two photographers spent two years, attending services until eventually one night, Covington took up the snakes himself and handled them.

He tells how he and one of the photographers, a man, spent much of their time discussing the "how" of snake handling. He talked about how the church goers would just reach their hands down into a box of rattlers, how they would walk on copperheads, drape snakes around their shoulders, or shake the snakes and let them lick them with their forked tongues. (I know. Did a shiver just go up your spine or what?)

Finally he stopped thinking about the how and asked the question we really care about: Why?

If you're unfamiliar with the reasoning behind religious snake handling, the practice is based on two verses in the New Testament:

Mark 16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Luke 10:19 Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.

Why would a group of people gather up to three nights a week, sing mountain gospel music, listen to some bad preaching, and then pick up poisonous snakes? The book explores some of the reasons--the main one being that this is the most power these people will ever know--and also how the author himself got caught up in it, which was less understandable to me. He's an adrenaline junkie, ok, I get that, but he also discovered that he had snake-handling ancestors and this was a way to connect with his roots. Now, I've got bootlegging-on-the-Illinois/Iowa-border ancestors, and I don't have any need to connect with them by taking up bootlegging myself. (I know that point is moot. But you know what I mean.) Honestly, if some of my ancestors handled rattlers and drank strychnine out of Mason jars, I would do everything I could to cover that up instead of celebrate it.

I have to say though, this is a fascinating book despite its bizarre subject. For one thing, Covington's a great writer. It's so much more than "How I Spent Time With Snake Handlers." He somehow manages to turn it all inward and examine his life and relationships through this experience. The whole thing's chock full of Southern pathos, (a fancy Nancy term for alcoholism and craziness, really). It reads like a novel. He's also funny. For example, here's a brief snippet between him and one of the snake-handling elders:

"'The Bible says you're gonna suffer for your faith,' he said in his soft Georgia accent, which differed only in degree from my own. 'Look what happened to Stephen. I'd rather die of snakebite than get stoned to death. And what about Peter? Didn't they crucify him upside down on a cross? I'd rather die of a snakebite.' He glanced over the top of his glasses to gauge my reaction. It sounded like a toss-up to me."

Covington even brought his little girls to a New Year's Eve service at the snake church. One of the little girls ran back out of the church and sat in the car the rest of the service. He said it was because she's an artist and wanted to draw pictures of the people and snakes. I think she was an "it's every girl for herself" kind of person, and I applaud her for it.

All in all, I'm glad I read the book, and I highly recommend it. Besides taking away some new knowledge of a sub-culture, the book made me think about some things I can actually use outside of a Trivial Pursuit game (hey, are there questions on snake handling? I can answer them now!)

1) Beware of doing Bible balloon animals with verses and twisting them to mean something they don't.

2) Beware of having to have experiences that you think will put you in touch with God. Having spiritual experiences is wonderful. Having to have them is only going to lead you to a bad place.

I wanted my dad to read the book, but when I told him about it he said, "Why in the world are you and Joseph reading about rattlesnakes? Don't even bring that snake book in my house." See? The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

But YOU should read it, and tell me what you think!

1 comment:

Laura Brown said...

We had snake handlers in West Virginia, too. I recall the Washington Post once did a story about one of the West Virginia congregations -- and then returned a few months later for a follow-up when their pastor died of snakebite.

A funny thing is that Mark 16:18 doesn't even appear in all early manuscripts of that Gospel; many scholars think that everything after 16:8 is the addition of another author.