Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Not even the foot-stompin' Charlie Daniels sound of its title or a disparaging review by Michiko Kakutani (the Don Rickles of lit'ry criticism) likely would have saved Salvation on Sand Mountain from my eternal disinterest were it not for a friend's lending it to me. And even that was a stretch, because of some doubtless twisted psychology I avoid like coiled vipers most books friends lend me. And so it was at first with Salvation on Sand Mountain. For weeks it sat atop one of my twin to-read towers—on the tower furthest from me, if it matters (and maybe in a Jungian sense it does), challenging my inertia with its Southern rock title and cover photo of a young woman. The woman is clearly beautiful despite the uncanny resemblance of her moon face to a young David Crosby's. Her striking features are distorted in a grimace that suggests erotic ecstasy as her suppliant hands appear to be offering someone a live rattlesnake.
Author Dennis Covington, who held a rattlesnake similarly in his hands while doing research for Salvation on Sand Mountain, describes the sensation:

And I could not hear the earsplitting music. The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees, like the incredible shrinking man. The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light, and the way its head moved from side to side, searching for a way out. I knew then why handlers take up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self. It must be close to our conception of paradise, what it’s like before you’re born or after you die.

I'm thinking one of the incentives for me ultimately to pick Salvation on Sand Mountain from its tower of qued books was the same as Covington's for doing the book. Curiosity. I was looking for something to review for Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books weekly blog feature. The little I knew about religious snake handlers came from news items, usually about someone being bitten. I'd assumed the handlers were crazed in the way of youngsters playing chicken to see who is bravest. Instead of proving their bravery to each other the snake handlers ostensibly were proving their faith to an unseen god. Unhinged, as I saw it.
My curiosity grew incrementally from the book's cover, starting with the beautiful woman holding the snake. My eyes eventually drifted from her face directly across to the copper-colored seal proclaiming: National Book Award Finalist. Hmmmm, I thought. I allowed my eyes to drop beneath the photo to a blurb from The New Yorker, which praised Salvation on Sand Mountain as “An extraordinary account of how a journalistic assignment evolved into a spiritual quest.” Hmmmm, indeed. I opened the cover and read more blurbs. My favorite is from Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe: Salvation, she said, “will jar you to the bone. It will make you wonder about things you never thought to wonder about and meet people you never dreamed existed. Dennis Covington is either the bravest or the craziest journalist I know.”

Dennis Covington

Well, as you might guess, I now concur. With all of it. As the Newsweek blurb promised, Salvation on Sand Mountain mesmerized me. Mesmerized me like a swami's flute summoning a cobra from its basket. I read the book in one sitting, and remained entranced through to the end. Unlike Covington, though, I was not compelled to visit a snake handling church and hoist a rattlesnake barehanded over my head. Not that I have a phobic fear of snakes, like my mother, who faced her fear by boiling a harmless grass snake, stripping the flesh from its bones, and fashioning the skeleton into a necklace. It didn't help her much with live snakes, but I'm certain the courage it revealed stood her well with her siblings growing up on the farm. I learned I did not inherit her phobia when I felt no qualms wrestling Miles the five-foot-long black rat snake from our chicken coop and carrying him back to the woods every other week or so. I demurred a similar response when it came to the mid-size copperhead, for the same reason Covington gives in his book, because it was on our property endangering our children and pets.
Copperhead and I
An assignment for The New York Times prompted Covington's journey to Sand Mountain. Reporting on the trial of a fundamentalist preacher in Scottsboro, Alabama, charged with attempting to murder his wife with rattlesnakes, he became fascinated with the people testifying about snake handling in their worship services. Covington grew up a Baptist in Birmingham, but quickly understood he was glimpsing a part of Southern culture alien to him. With the curiosity of a journalist and a taste for danger—he'd covered war on the ground in El Salvador—he plunged in head first. He learned his ancestors had been mountain people, one of them a snake-handling preacher. His curiosity moved him beyond getting a story to finding deeper cultural roots and religious faith within himself.
I shall leave off now, as it seems the enchantment Salvation on Sand Mountain cast on me is enjoying a revival of sorts. Afraid if I keep going I just might abruptly stand, throw my arms in the air and shout “AMEN!” And I would mean it. Not the most prudent behavior, I suspect, in our public library.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


  1. Intriguing review coupled with some very personal experiences. I think I stumbled across a newspaper review of this sometime ago and thought it might be a fascinating read. Certainly rings a bell and that cover looks familiar. There is a play by Romulus Linney (actress Laura Linney's playwright father) called HOLY GHOSTS also about this arcane and sometime unfathomable world of snake handling ecstatics. It was based on people he knew growing up in Tennessee.

  2. Thanks, John. I'll keep an eye out for the play. Didn't know Laura was one of those Linneys (altho I know of no others).

  3. What a review, Mathew. I loved your personal experiences with snakes.

    Covington and I have a lot in common and I had never even heard of him. He grew up Baptist in Birmingham, I grew up Methodist in Birmingham. I never went back there to live though.

    I was not familiar with fundamentalist groups in Alabama (or the South) and had never heard of snake handling. Very interesting.

  4. Thanks, Tracy. It was all new to me, too, altho I grew up in Wisconsin. I was unaware of any religious snake handling there.

  5. Terrific review, Mathew. What an intriguing read. I'm with you when a friend gives me a book to read - not that that happens much anymore, people learn. :) I always feel obligated and yet at the same time always find an excuse to postpone. Has reading this and being mesmerized erased your prohibition against reading books that are foisted on you? Maybe our friends know a thing or two.

    1. Thanks, Yvette. Maybe it has. That and the increasing hunger for books to read to feed FFB. ;)