Last week, a Kentucky man died of snake bite. His name was Jamie Coots and he was holding three snakes, including the two-and-a-half foot timber rattlesnake that bit him on the hand, during religious services. Coots had garnered some fame/infamy for being the subject of a National Geographic reality show called “Snake Salvation.” He preached at a church in Middlesboro known as the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name and cited Mark 16:18 in support of his reptilian practice:
“they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
Mr. Coots refused medical treatment. And he died.
It seemed an appropriate time to update my review of Wiley Cash’s novel, A Land More Kind than Home. Cash’s fictional character is a charismatic, heavily scarred, snake-handling Brother Carson Chambliss who guides the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following in Marshall, North Carolina. Chambliss would like to hide his past crimes from the congregation he now leads in a lonesome converted general store with windows blocked by newspaper. No one can look in, and no one can see out; their view and reason obscured by the newspaper and by Chambliss himself.
That detail in itself conveys the juxtaposition between fiction and reality. Chambliss covered his windows; Coots appeared on television. In both realms, the practice of snake handling is forbidden. Kentucky has a law on the books which makes handling poisonous snakes during religious services a misdemeanor offense. However, it has rarely if ever been enforced. Even after a woman in Coots’ congregation died during a religious service, and Coots was charged with the offense, the local county judge refused to sign the complaint, citing Coots’ religious observation.
Some reviews call this a Southern Gothic novel. I didn’t think it was Southern Gothic so much as horror. The descriptions of Chambliss wielding his power by making his flock “pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them,” induce dread.
“[A] right good many of them get burned up and poisoned, and there wasn’t a single one of them that would go see a doctor if they got sick or hurt. That’s why the snake bites bothered me the most. Those copperheads and rattlers could only stand so much, especially with the music pounding like it did and all them folks dancing and hollering and falling out on the floor, kicking over chairs and laying their hands on each other.”
(shiver) That’s actually a quotation from the book. The most alarming thing is how closely it parallels some news accounts of Coots’ death and the previous death of a woman in his church. “Coots’ church was the site of a fatal snakebite in August 1995. Melinda Brown, 28, of Parrotsville, Tenn., died after she was bitten on the arm by a large rattlesnake. Her husband, John Wayne “Punkin” Brown, begged her to go to the hospital, but she refused and died at Coots’ home.” Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/02/16/3092068/jamie-coots-well-known-snake-handling.html#storylink=cpy.
The novel narrative has multiple voices: a child; a kind octogenarian and a sheriff who has seen just about everything. Each is different, compelling and advances the horror and complexity toward the story’s nearly inevitable end. In Middlesboro, Kentucky, it is Police Chief Jeff Sharpe who has seen just about everything. As to Coots, he was quoted as saying he did not agree with Coots’ actions but had” tremendous respect for his determination to uphold his faith.”
My book club very much appreciated the writing while not so much enjoying the descriptions of the cultish church services. But the choice of “A Land More Kind Than Home,” for your book club would be very timely.
Unless you particularly enjoy eating snake meat, there’s only one other food description in the book but it’s a lovely description by Miss Adelaide of a dream:
“I looked down and saw that I was holding a plate with a napkin over it and that was wet with grease, and when I lifted that napkin I saw that it covered a heap of fried chicken. . . . I saw it was plum full of people in robes carrying food and instruments up the grassy hllside in the growing dark … and then it struck me that they might just be angels. Jesus walked right up beside me, and we stood there watching them walk past us and on ahead of us … we were going to a Decoration Day and I knew they’d have the food set out and the hymns going and the sweet tea poured when I met them at the top of the hill.”
I think a fun themed menu would revolve around that vision (with the inclusion of a little devil’s food cake in Chambliss’ honor) and my menu takes the vision into account along with my memories of the potluck dinners at the Springfield Baptist Church from my own childhood. No snakes there, luckily. The recipes I’ve included are my grandmother’s — or her grandmother’s.
Green Bean Casserole
Devil’s Food Cake
Corn Pudding: 1 can corn, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, 1 dash pepper, 1 1/4 teaspoon salt, 4 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 tablespoon. Bake 25 minutes at 420 degrees.
Divinity (In my grandmother’s own hand)
3 Cups Sugar 3 egg whites 2/3 cup water 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup dark karo syrup
Combine sugar, water and salt and bring to boil. Cook until a few drops crackle when added to cold water. Have Karo ready to heat in another pan. Beat egg whites until stiff. When sugar syrup is ready, remove from heat and place Karo on to boil. Add sugar syrup to egg whites gradually while beating constantly. Scrape mixture into electric mixer bowl and beat. Heat Karo until it spins into thread. Add to meringue, beating constantly at high speed. Use two teaspoons to make individual servings.
Updating this review also gives me an opportunity to suggest a movie cast and I would wager Wiley Cash had an image of Kevin Spacey’s ravaged face on his mind, if not on his desk, as he wrote his novel. Spacey would be my choice for Chambliss. Miss Adelaide, the voice of wisdom and age, is tougher. I want the American Maggie Smith for her role but I’d accept Gena Rowlands or Ellen Burstyn.