The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

serpent kingDill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.
 
The only antidote to all this venom is his friendship with fellow outcasts Travis and Lydia. But as they are starting their senior year, Dill feels the coils of his future tightening around him. Dill’s only escapes are his music and his secret feelings for Lydia—neither of which he is brave enough to share. Graduation feels more like an ending to Dill than a beginning. But even before then, he must cope with another ending—one that will rock his life to the core.
 
Debut novelist Jeff Zentner provides an unblinking and at times comic view of the hard realities of growing up in the Bible belt, and an intimate look at the struggles to find one’s true self in the wreckage of the past.*

The first perhaps half of this book seems to me to be focused largely on the characters without too much of a plot. The fact that it still had me turning pages to learn more about the three protagonists says a lot about Jeff’s ability to create characters who feel real. Reading this book was like becoming friends with new people, gradually learning more and more about them until you decide that they are totally awesome and you need to hang out with them all the time. The chapters are all told from a third-person perspective, but alternate focus between Travis, Dill, and Lydia so that we get equal glimpses inside each of their heads.

This story gives a really fascinating glimpse into issues unique to the Bible belt, as most of the book is set in a small town in Tennessee, though perhaps the ideas brought up are prevalent in other areas as well and I simply haven’t been exposed to them. Dill’s parents are very heavily religious, particularly his father, who was a preacher and has Bible verses tattooed on his hands. I had never heard of the types of Christians who handle snakes and drink poison to prove their faith, but that is the level of religious worship that Dill’s folks are at and he is constantly subjected to his parents’ guilt trips, all supposedly in the name of Jesus. One of the things I love about reading is that it provides readers with insight into things they otherwise would not have known or cared much about; I now find myself feeling even more empathy for people with parents so strictly religious that they are unable to be their true selves for fear of the repercussions at home. Jeff does a great job of portraying this struggle between one’s own self and the person their parents expect them to be, and the frustration and hopelessness this causes.

Another important and related issue that is prevalent in this story is the idea that we are more than our names. We do not need to be trapped by other peoples’ dogma merely because we bear the same name as them. We are not our parents or grandparents; we have the ability to choose our own destiny instead of having our ancestors lay the path for us. Dill’s character has the ability to give so many people hope and faith that it is possible to break free and trod their own path in life rather than the one they think they must follow.

Familial abuse and neglect, and the effects those can have on a child, are also brought up throughout the book. Again, the character that bears the brunt of these things serves as a role model for any readers struggling with these issues themselves. There are times when it is okay to stand up to your elders or an authority figure; there are times when you must stand up for yourself because no one else is going to come along and do it for you. Sometimes, you have to be your own hero. If no one else will acknowledge the worlds of possibility that lie within you, you have to love yourself enough to recognize them on your own. We all have the strength to do so buried within us, we just have to uncover it. I thought this was a really beautiful message.

Other topics that were also dealt with include bullying and suicide, two issues that were handled really nicely. Lydia was a strong female character, which is always nice to see, and her parents show how family should act in contrast to the other families shown in the book. The tragedy that strikes about halfway or two-thirds through the book helps move the characterization along and shows how people think about death in different ways. The reflections done by the characters on the loss they experience were really poignant and moving, and show how loss can change a person for better or worse.

This was a really great read and Jeff is a really talented person. If you’re into music, check out the two songs he wrote and recorded that provided some of the inspiration for this book. They’re called The Serpent King and Rusty Town, and can be found on his YouTube channel.

*Cover image and synopsis are from Amazon.com.

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