Last night I read a book called The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. And it gave me a lot of feelings. I think I loved it, but I’m not totally sure. So I’m going to write it out and figure out what I really think.
(I read it while listening to the Southern Gothic playlist on Spotify. Do it. You won’t be disappointed.)
*mild spoilers coming up. but I tried not to give away anything big*
- The characters.
Lydia – mixed feelings. Part of me really related with her, and part of me found her intolerable. She’s an incredibly successful teen fashion blogger, and she intends on leaving her small town behind. And sometimes I wanted to shake her because she was being so thoughtlessly cruel, to Travis, and Dill especially. She doesn’t truly listen when Dill tells her why it would be hard for him to go to college. She dismisses his concerns, and I don’t think that’s what Dill needed from her. She doesn’t understand the realities that Dill and Travis lived in, and I don’t think she would’ve been able to. She saw the world as such a black and white place.
BUT. I also really respected her for pursuing what she loved and taking the time/effort to excel at it. She wanted to be part of the Great Conversation in the wider world, and that’s amazing. Her parents were so kind and supportive, and I kind of liked the idea that having a happy childhood doesn’t make you a bad or boring person.
If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.
– Dolly Parton
Travis – Good ol’ Trav. I kind of feel like I’m secretly Travis inside. Because if I let myself, I would totally wear a dragon necklace. I just hide my inner weirdo (more or less).
Dill – PRECIOUS CHILD. I love this guy. Pretty much everything about him. The music and the depression that chokes him and the struggles with faith and the awareness of his father’s blood in his veins. I love how he calls Lydia out on wearing her small town background like a fashion accessory, to be put on only when it makes her look good. I love how he’s so rooted in Forrestville and the South, and how he understands Travis’s situation. Things aren’t black and white. Dill gets it.
Also, the description of depression was spot on, and that’s really, really important.
Everything seemed muted and colorless. Every sound reached his ears as though through a thick wool blanket. He had no music in him.
- Small town life.
Dang. This book is accurate. I think I had such strong feelings about Lydia because I couldn’t decide if I was her or not. (Haaa not on the fashion thing for sure.) Because the money situation isn’t great, but I get to go to college, and I don’t have to work in a factory. And life doesn’t work that way for everyone. And as much as I’d like to say that if you work hard in school you can go to college and get a different life for yourself… I’m not sure that’s the case. I don’t think it’s an “If A, then B” situation.
Not everyone who plays guitar is going to make it big. And by not everyone, I mean hardly anyone. Same goes for painting and writing and photography. I don’t want to sound overly cynical (though I am a jaded mess), but I haven’t seen a whole lot of artistic dreams coming true. So it seemed a little strange that Dill so quickly found success.
Not strange, maybe… more like it made me wistful. It would be nice if that’s how things worked.
Always one of the easiest things to talk about, right? Not controversial at all.
So. Dill’s dad was a Pentecostal preacher who had his congregation handle venomous* snakes and drink poison, on the idea that those with true faith would be protected. Signs ministry.
Now. That’s not what my church is like at all. I don’t think that that’s what Christianity is really like at all, either. But the fact remains that there are some sects of Christianity that get pretty far away from the Bible’s main teachings of grace and forgiveness. And it’s important to acknowledge that reality, and acknowledge the way you see it playing out in the lives of the people around you.
Though the author didn’t seem to view the snake-handling signs ministry as all that great, he resisted writing off all Christianity, which I really admire him for. It would’ve been easy to do. But the reality is much more nuanced. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in the Bible Belt, but I imagine that it seeps into almost every aspect of life there. Sometimes, when you’ve got good pastors and accurate teachings, it’s going to make life a lot better. And sometimes, things are going to get twisted, and things are going to get worse.
In the end, Jeff Zentner said he wrote this book to accurately capture the world he saw growing up. This book imperfectly but honestly grapples with issues of faith, mental illness, and family. And for that, I think I loved it.
*Ayyyy who wants a science fact?? Venomous means that it harms you when it bites you and gets into your bloodstream. Poisonous means that it harms you when you eat it.