Some reviews of books by Knoxville authors
The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith
by Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald
(John F. Blair publisher)
In The Serpent Handlers: Three Families and Their Faith, there's an unsettling picture of handler Jamie Coots, his right hand on a Bible. The top half of his middle finger has shriveled into a dark crusty twig, the lower half is red and swollenthe result of being bitten by one of the serpents he's handled.
Coots stands proud, his scarred finger a testament to his faith. For most people, Coots and his finger are a gross curiosity, something we'll never understand but would love to know more about. Fred Brown and Jeanne McDonald do a great deal to humanize the Appalachian curiosity known as snake handling in their new book, The Serpent Handlers.
A Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter, Brown was first invited to a snake-handling worship in 1984, and since then has been covering them for the paper. As a result, Brown and his wife McDonald (a fiction writer who also contributes book reviews to Metro Pulse) were given incredible access to the families and services. Their book tells the stories of snake-handling families in Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia (including "Punkin" Brown, who died in 1998, and whose children became the victim of a custody battle over the religion).
For the most part, the couple gets out of the way and lets the believers tell their stories without judgment. After short introductions of each subject, they tell their own stories in long, transcribed monologues.
Although snake handling strikes most as bizarre and dangerous, what The Serpent Handlers makes clear is that these are just ordinary folks, albeit with a bit more passion for their beliefs.
At times you wish for a little more interpretive narrativemore description of the family's homes and lives, more about the history of snake handling, and the nature of the poisonous snakes. Then again, cultural analysis and interpretation may not be Brown and McDonald's strong point, because there's something phony about the few places they attempt it. At one point in an introductory section describing Newport, Tenn., they write that shopping malls "have lured customers away from downtown businesses and introduced a vast new world of modern consumer products"as if these poor folks have just discovered TVs, blenders, and microwave ovens.
But ultimately, the book works because Brown and McDonald don't try to explain something that comes down to a matter of faith.
A Whiff of Garlic
by David Hunter
(Silver Dagger Mysteries)
Write what you know, they say. That's what David Hunter, a former Knox County Sheriff's deputy, has done since 1989 in a series of police mysteries set in East Tennessee.
But it's unlikely Hunter's real-life experience had much bearing on his latest novel, A Whiff of Garlic, in which a pair of detectivesone a hard-nosed veteran named Doyle Griffin, a loner with the typical commitment issues, the other his eager rookie partner, Gary Keithtrack a killer who may or may not be a werewolf. Along the way, the cops brush up against all the worst elements in fictional Horton County, Tennesseeoutlaw bikers, a strip club owner, a crack dealer turned police informant, and a mysterious naked nighttime jogger. (Nudity is a prominent theme in A Whiff of Garlic. Griffin's statuesque girlfriend, Sarah Trinkle, parades through the novel clad only in her skivvies: "She wasn't an exhibitionist, she simply had no hangups about nudity." That's an admirable feat of body acceptance on her part, but it's a bit prurient; Sarah's state of undress gives Hunter ample opportunity to comment on her heavy breasts and curvy hips.)
Keith and Griffin spend the bulk of the novel chasing their suspectsthe naked man, an ex-con, and a former cop. All the while, "Hollywood" Hank Fritz, an aging detective bitter that he's been overshadowed by Griffin and Keith, sits on the financial records that hold the key to the killer's identity. When Fritz makes his final lapse of judgment and is relieved of duty, the records surface and the killer is brought to final, fitting justice. But is he really a werewolf?
Hunter's a competent prose writer. The dialogue is stiff, even wooden, but the opening sequencethe murder of a strip club bounceris taut and chilling. And the brief climax is a well-written blur of violence. In between, however, there are too many red herrings, and the neat ending doesn't adequately capture the creepy possibilities of the premise. A good effort, but not quite enough.
Matthew T. Everett
The Great Smokies: From Natural Habitat to National Park
by Daniel S. Pierce
(University of Tennessee Press)
I spend a lot of time hiking the trails of the Great Smokies. I will forever wonder what it would be like to step back in time and see what the Smokies were like in their glorywith their towering old-growth chestnut trees, and elk, mountain lions, and wolves roaming underneath.
It's tempting, of course, to see the Smokies as vast wilderness that was nearly destroyed when Europeans moved in. But as Pierce points out in his new book, the humans have long had an impact on the forests here. True enough, imported animals and farming techniques, and logging nearly decimated them.
But centuries before Westerners arrived, the Cherokee had been shaping the forestimporting plants, burning to favor certain types of trees and clear hunting grounds, and farming food. Those practices were less destructive and more sustainable, but they shaped the forest nonetheless.
In his book, Pierce details the many ways that humans affected the Smokies, for better or worse. He chronicles the various ways that humans have attempted to live in and control the forest, from the Cherokees to the rugged Scots Irish to the logging companies to the preservationists who established a park here. The majority of the book focuses on the efforts to turn the land into a park.
A bit academic at times, the book is still a good read for anyone who wonders what the Smokies were like long ago and who cares about their future.
July 13, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 28
© 2000 Metro Pulse