As a former member of corporate America who eventually turned to writing, I was extremely intrigued by this novel written by Washington attorney Helen Elaine Lee. How many people have I met, fueled by the success of John Grisham or Michael Crichton, who report slaving away at their portable computers trying to write the next "Pelican Brief" or "Disclosure"? Was Lee, I wondered, another one of these misguided souls who'd be better off writing legal briefs than literature? Should she be given that sage advice, "Honey, don't quit your day job"?
But after a marathon reading of "The Serpent's Gift" while I should have been enjoying the scenery on vacation, I wanted to advise Lee to start writing that resignation letter. For "The Serpent's Gift" marks the debut of an important new voice on the fictional landscape.
Although there's nary a lawyer or murder weapon in sight, Lee has nevertheless created an emotional, suspenseful page-turner. Her terrain is the human heart; the first two pages of the book alone contain one of the most haunting deaths in recent memory. This passing deeply affects young Vesta Smalls, creating in her a fear of making a critical misstep, of yielding to "the power of the small deed to rip the sky apart, and return it to seamless blue." And as the novel fast-forwards to an aged Vesta, now encased in tattered scarves and surrounded by plastic covered furniture, you sense she's paid some terrible price for a misstep, an accident long ago.
There's a saying that goes, "When one door closes, another opens. " For Lee's characters, the closing off represented by the accident and the violence leading up to it are a new beginning, an opening that propel the 8-year-old Vesta, her mother Eula and younger brother LaRue to the loving and colorful home of Ruby and Polaris Staples. There Eula finds a peaceful place in the basement in which to recede and muse on the nature of her love for Ontario Smalls, a love whose most visible remnant is a serpentine facial scar, which her rescuer and friend Ruby calls "angry healing flesh."
It is there that Vesta and LaRue find a sister in the Staples' daughter Ouida, an imaginative, confident child, and a ready-made mother in Ruby, a woman deeply rooted in her community who, like the African griots, is a teller of tales and serves her neighbors as a sort of therapist-confessor, allowing the stories of their lives to come to light. And while Ruby's stories, told in stoop-sitting sessions with the neighbors, are too uncontrolled for the rigid vigil Vesta must keep over her life and emotions, young LaRue is drawn to this other mother, absorbing stories while sitting in a rocker in Ruby's kitchen. These stories ignite his imagination, allowing him to create his own make-believe character, Miss Snake, "who got in and out of fixes each time she appeared, who started out with purple spots but changed each time she shed her skin."
The creation of the Miss Snake stories, as well as the later tales of Tennessee Coal & Iron Company Jones, are author Lee's masterstroke, completely rooted in the African American oral traditions of Bre'r Rabbit and Anansi the spider. The stories, themselves deserving of their own book, act here to illuminate the narrative and give it a lyrical magic that both captivate and enlighten the characters. In young LaRue's mouth, the stories also represent a connectedness to African American culture and identity that delight Ruby and Ouida, but dismay Vesta and Eula, who consider them "lies." For Eula and Vesta, the stories threaten to initiate an internal battle with secrets and dreams, long hidden but recurring as closed-off spaces that keep them from knowing peace. And until they understand the gift the Miss Snake stories have to offer, that peace remains elusive, just beyond their reach.
Lee has written in the siblings LaRue, Vesta, Ouida and December (who appears near the end of Part I) a quartet of unforgettable characters whose personalities run counter to expectation, especially as we see African American men and women too often portrayed in print and broadcast media. LaRue is a sensitive, intuitive man with a spirit that can not be crushed; a man who, when recognizing his love for Olive Winters, fights against his impulse to pull away; a man who marks the changes in his world from after the Great War through the 1960s with wonder, a great love for his people and a moving grace. His sister, Vesta, is rigid and frightened, a woman whose retreat from the pain of early disappointments drains the vitality from her life. Ouida supposedly has everything to be desired among black folk of the time--fair skin, vivacious wit, imagination--yet she makes a radical decision to embrace an unconventional love. Then there is December, Ruby and Polaris' daughter, whose arrival at the winter equinox signals birth out of death, but who, under Vesta's excruciatingly restrictive love, becomes a colorless cipher of a Detroit housewife, more concerned with the correctness of her peanut butter selection than the quality of her life.
Lee's novel also displays an adept use of color, light and space as indicators of vitality, of memory, of love and loss. From the earliest image of a ripped blue sky, "The Serpent's Gift" is suffused with color and space, creating a visual tapestry of emotional depth that compelled me to turn the page while I simultaneously wanted to linger over every word. Images appear in unexpected ways: The skin of an orange that stimulates the elderly Vesta's memories; her youthful retreat from the tumult of color into a seemingly serene world represented by an all-white wardrobe and meticulously cross-stitched homilies; the cobalt blue lovemaking of LaRue and Olive; the blood-red moon that ushers in the birth of Dessie, Ruby's "late in life" child; or Ouida's retreat into dark spaces after a wrenching night of terror. While there are moments, like the ultimately unfulfilling revelation of Ruby's secret shame, in which I wished Lee's style were a little more restrained, or conversely displayed more emotion, these are small quibbles about a book that is so richly imagined.
LaRue Smalls finishes many stories in "The Serpent's Gift" with, "I've told my friends, now you tell yours." The phrase is most apropos in celebrating the arrival of Helen Elaine Lee and "The Serpent's Gift," a book whose colors will linger behind the eyes long after you read the final page.