In this sad, funny, biting novel, Hellenga, a professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, dips heavily into both academia and local culture to create the ultimate town-versus-gown story. The book begins as a literary male fantasy — a 40-year-old, Indiana-Jones-styled anthropologist with girlfriends dotting the globe — sits on his deck and ponders the notion of embarking on a new life. Should he marry and settle down to a classroom career or return to Africa where he’s made a name for him as an anthropologist and “gone native” among the pygmy Mbuti peoples? Then Willa Fern drops into the picture. Willa, the niece of Jackson’s deceased caretaker and friend, is fresh from prison for shooting, but not killing, her snake-handling, preacher-husband Earl, pastor of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following.
Redubbed “Sunny,” the smart and sexy ex-con moves into the caretaker’s apartment above the garage, enrolls at the college where Jackson teaches and slides into a Pygmalion-type of relationship with him. Enter Earl to reclaim his wife’s affections, and the book explodes with tension, temptation and danger. In the process, the novel becomes Sunny’s story, the tale of a girl who grew up rough, married young and, like Jackson, dreams of a new life.
Why do practitioners of some religions, like that espoused by Earl, handle poisonous snakes and drink strychnine? Hellenga provides not only the historical and biblical explanations but also escorts the reader on a chilling and visceral journey along the path from repulsion to rapture. Life is complicated, as both Jackson and Sunny discover, and new ways of being often come only at the expense of the old, which must be shucked off, the way a snake sheds its skin.