Fisher King Press, 2011, $17.97
Someone who reads as much as I read obviously has a love affair with books. And there are a great many books I have loved in my lifetime. But rarely does a book come along that feels like it was written specifically for me. Barbara Kingsolver did it in 2001 with Prodigal Summer, set in my beloved Appalachia, where my ancestral roots on my father’s side are. And now, Patricia Damery has done it with her wondrous book, Snakes.
When Angela Galway leaves her family’s Illinois farm at the age of 19 to drive across the country to attend college in California, her beloved father is loathe to see her go. For reasons she cannot quite explain, Angela decides to major in marine biology, perhaps specifically because it is so far removed from all she knows.
After a harrowing adventure involving a hot air balloon and thousands of sea snakes, Angela decides marine biology is not for her. Snakes are something to fear: on the farm, snakes were killed, and her early childhood memories are filled with the screams of her mother and grandmothers whenever a snake dared cross their paths. Angela’s intense fear of snakes is as deep as her Midwestern roots.
Angela marries and has a family. Happy to be a stay-at-home mom, her days are filled with caring for her children, creating the intricate weavings that are metaphors for her life, and telling stories about snakes. For as much as she loathes the creatures, they are a part of her history.
When a series of family crises pile up one after another, Angela has a difficult time coping. Change has never been easy for her—she is not Snake, who sheds her skin and thus experiences a sort of rebirth.
So attached is she to the past she cannot even put her weavings up for sale when a local gallery owner offers to do so.
“But he did not understand that they were more than weavings,” Angela says. “Even I did not know I was making the fabric of my life, pulling together discordant threads, desperately trying to hold the whole in my heart while weaving each particular. The weavings were not expendable. Too much I life is expendable. Not my weavings.”
Snakes is a book about change, and about staying the same. It is a tale about learning to grow, to shed one’s skin, to be reborn. Snake must shed her skin in order to grow. Can Angela metaphorically do so, too?
This book touched me on so many levels it is difficult to know where to start. I, too, was born and raised in Illinois and moved later to California (although in my case, I was 51, not 19, like Angela). Snake stories were a big part of my childhood (for more on this, click here to read my Observations of an Earth Mage blog, “Snakes: A Love Story). I understand how deep Midwestern roots run. Yet, I also know what it is to one day realize living by the ocean is not unlike living on the prairie. “The sound of the ocean is the pulse of life,” Angela says. “Coming and going. Ebb and flow. Calm and violent. I began to see how it is like the roaring silence of the midwinter prairie, or then again, like the pulsating beat of my heart. Hush, listen.”
I loved her alluding to something as seemingly rigid as a sea urchin being not unlike the fluid snake, and how both creatures can warn us about resisting change. “This fellow (the urchin) has adapted by digging protective holes into rocks … Sometimes he will move into the hole of an ancestor and grow larger than the opening. There he will be imprisoned for life.” Just as Snake must shed her skin to survive, the sea urchin must shed it’s protective coating—in this case, the rock home in which it lives—or risk death. Even Angela learns a lesson from the urchin. “I was learning how impermanent the houses we build are, how we can so easily outgrow them, and like the sea urchins become trapped in houses too small …”
Most of all, I loved the way Damery weaved snake lore into her story. “They guard you, you know,” an old prune farmer tells Angela. “They guard you, and they guard the land. Kill ‘em and you kill your very spirit!” And her friend Marcy tells her “…the earth has spirits that guard places, and that the spirit of a place is embodied in a snake. She said this spirit insures the continuity of the place’s existence.”
Damery displays a masterful understanding of Snake as a metaphor; a metaphor for change, a metaphor for knowledge, a metaphor for rebirth, a metaphor for creative energy, and a metaphor for awakening. Snakes is a book of such poetic prose, it is a book I will read over and over again.