Robert Hellenga explores fertile ground in 'Little Egypt'

Literary editor

The plains and prairies of Willa Cather's “My Antonia” and cities of Theodore Dreiser's “Sister Carrie” have come to define the Midwestern literary tradition, while “Little Egypt,” the triangular tip of southern Illinois bound by the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash rivers, has been long overlooked. The swamps and dense forests, pocked by closed factories and coal mines, may have proven to be fertile ground, for it is the place in which Robert Hellenga has rooted his new novel, “Snakewoman of Little Egypt: A Novel.”

Hellenga, the author of five novels such as “The Sixteen Pleasures: A Novel” and “The Fall of a Sparrow,” is often associated with Italy, though he grew up in Three Oaks, Mich., and teaches at Knox College in Galesburg. Because his father's business was seasonal, Hellenga spent summers in Milwaukee. He remembers that he got to know his father's employees, mostly Italians, and came to understand the cultures of both: small-town, more austere Methodists with church basement weddings featuring cake and ginger ale punch with chunks of lime sherbet floating in it, and Italian weddings with huge celebratory dinners, lavish celebrations and lots of wine.

Hellenga recalls that he was putting the finishing touches on his last book, “The Italian Lover” when he heard an NPR interview segment featuring Jeff Biggers and his book “The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America.” The tales inspired Hellenga's curiosity, he explains, leading him to the library where he found not only histories, but also fascinating first-person accounts of life in the region.

The novel that took shape put an unlikely pair at its center: An anthropologist and college professor who lived in Africa among the Mbuti and fathered a daughter there, and a young woman released from prison after shooting her wife-beating husband who, as the pastor of a church of serpent-handlers, forced her to thrust her arm into a box of snakes to see if God would spare her. Hellenga deftly guides these characters through wildly different worlds: a Pentecostal church, women's prison, small liberal arts college, timpani music, Pygmies, Freud, Marx, dot-com stocks, and how to make poule au riz (chicken in rice).

Serpents and herpetology are so vividly rendered that one might imagine Hellenga was a snake-handler himself, or at least that he tried it. To the contrary. Hellenga has never handled a snake and to get a sense of Little Egypt, he and his wife spent a week there, staying in Elizabethtown, a tiny downstate town near the Kentucky border. For Hellenga, imagination trumps experience. This raises a question of how a writer conveys the emotions of an experience without the experience, especially in a place as unique as Little Egypt.

For Hellenga, the answer lies with language. “For me,” he says, “if you get the language right, it doesn't matter if you experience the stuff or not. You can understand emotions, but in order to convey those, you have to get the language right.”

In “Snakewoman of Little Egypt: A Novel,” Hellenga lets a character speak for him. “Intentionality is the enemy,” is the frequent refrain of a creative writing teacher in the novel. Hellenga attributes the admonition to the legendary writer and teacher, Richard Bausch, and he makes a point of following it. “You want to be open to surprises at every stage of the game,” says Hellenga. “If you work at sticking to a plan you're likely to shut off inspiration.”

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