Sunday, February 17, 2008

Of serpents and strychnine

I just finished one of the coolest books I have read in a long time. Its called "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia." With a name like that, you know it has to be good. Its written by Dennis Covington, a writer/journalist who goes to cover the trial of a preacher in a snake handling congregation who tried to kill his wife by making her put her arm in his rattlesnake cages until the snakes bit her several times. After the trial, he continues to follow the story of the snake handling congregation, and it takes him on his own spiritual journey where he learns about snake handling, religion, history, and his own geneology.

Part of the books appeal, certainly, is voyeurism. After all, one of the main the reasons you're reading the book is because these people and this culture are fascinating. They are poor southern white people living in the Appalachian mountains. They take their pentecostal religion seriously and literally, so literally that when they read verses about handling snakes, treading on snakes, and drinking poison and not being harmed, they take up snakes, tread on snakes, and drink poison at their services. After some preaching and testifying and speaking in tongues, when they get feeling the spirit they pull the snakes out of their cages and pass them around. Some tread on the snakes, others drink strychnine (mixed strong if Aunt Gracie is the one doing the mixing). And they see going to the hospital after a bite as showing a lack of faith, so they either survive the bite or they die. As they see it, its not a bad way to go.

But the book's voyersims is balanced by Covington genuine care for these people. During the nearly two years that he spent with them, he became close friends with many of them, and he's not writing the book so that we can all sit on our perches and reflect on how odd they are; he is writing the book for us to get a glimpse into their way of life and to, in a way, appreciate it.

The book is always interesting, and its filled with great quotes. At one point, a snake handler explining the process to Covington says "There's serpents, and then there's fiery serpents." At another point, Brother Charles imparts some helpful wisdom to Covington about snake handling: "You might be annointed when you take up a serpent, but if there's a witchcraft spirit in the church it could zap your annointing and you'd be left cold turkey with a serpent in your hand and the spirit of God gone off you. That's when you'll get bit. So you really watch and remember what Brother Charles tells you. Always be careful who you take a rattlesnake from." Sound advice, which served Covington well when he did eventually take up snakes. Finally, Aunt Gracie, one of the old-timers who has been handling snakes for decades, explained that she stopped handling snakes in July because she had been bitten the previous two Julys. "I decided I'd just handle fire and drink strychnine that night," she said.


cblakes said...

Snakes are scary.

Darth Spencer said...

Indiana Jones would not approve. This book sounds great. It is going on my Amazon Wish List. I saw a feature on the Discovery Channel about something like this. It is increadibly interesting.


Salazar Slytherin would hav approved.

Personally, I think people would like snakes so much more if they would just show a little bit of personality. And that goes for spiders too.

Ian said...

I agree about Slytherin. Maybe the "tongues" that these people are speaking in is actually parseltounge. That would explain why they don't get bit, even when they use the snakes to wipe the sweat off their foreheads and when they put the snakes on the ground and walk on them.