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1 W& Salvation on Sand Mountain, Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington Addison-Wesley, 1995, 140 pp., $20 When Southern novelist and New York Times stringer Dennis Covington covered the 1991 trial of a snakehandling preacher accused of trying to murder his wife with rattlesnakes , he became fascinated with the question of why people handle snakes and decided to find out more. Salvation on Sand Mountain is the engrossing story of his journalistic and spiritual investigation. What the book occasionally lacks in depth of insight, it makes up for with the detailed inside view it provides of a little-documented fundamentalist subculture. From Scottsboro, Alabama, site of Glenn Summerford's trial for attempted murder, and the snakehandling Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following, Covington travelled throughout Appalachia, meeting handlers and attending their Holiness services in converted gas stations, ramshackle buildings without doors or window screens, and even outside, under oldfashioned brush arbors. Amazed by the persistent faith of people who had lost children or spouses to snakes, or who had been bitten as many as 400 times, Coving224 · The Missouri Review ton was swept up by the danger, eroticism and theatricality of snakehandling Christianity. "The longer you witness it," he writes, "unless you just don't get into the spontaneous and unexpected, the more you become a part of it. I did, and the handlers could teU." He became an expert on what kinds of snakes are preferred for handling (copperheads and timberrattlers —they're readily available in the Appalachians to anyone with a forked snake stick and a pillowcase ), and befriended a couple who kept a terrarium of pit vipers next to their coffeemaker. He witnessed the anointed drinking strychnine and speaking in tongues. EventuaUy he took up serpents himself, and was accepted as a true believer . Later he brought his family to a snake-handling service, and was gratified when his youngest daughter thought it was "cool." The individual portraits Covington provides of the snake handlers are part of what makes this book so worth reading. The book is weakest where Covington attempts to integrate historical and personal background with the account of his investigation. Snake handling is a regional phenomenon, practiced mainly by poor Southern whites, descendente of the Scotch-Irish hill people, whose history Covington recounts in detail. He is wise to provide a social and historical con- text for his story, but he does it awkwardly, frequently interrupting his compelling narrative. In addition , his own explanation of why he became so fascinated with his subject (he's a Southerner whose Scotch-Irish ancestors came down from the hills; he's always been drawn to danger) seems less than searching, and at times almost reverse-elitist. At one point he poohpoohs the claim of a Northern woman he meets that she, too, has been anointed by the Holy Ghost. At another point he observes, "Feeling after God is dangerous business. And Christianity without passion, danger and mystery may not really be Christianity at aU." What he fails to acknowledge is that this is true for everyone—not just himself and the snake handlers of Appalachia. Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin by Susan Curtis U of Mo Press, 1994, 288 pp., $26.95 A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger Oxford U.P., 1995, 328 pp., $30 By 1896, when the term "ragtime " first appeared in print in Ernest Hogan's song, "AU Coons Look Alike to Me," the new style of African-American-derived popular music had already been heard by over twenty million blacks and whites who had attended the Chicago World's Fair, and was spreading from clubs throughout the nation's heartland to major metropoUtan centers of culture like New York City. Little did popular audiences of the time guess the role ragtime, with its "ragged," syncopated rhythm, would play in the development of American music. Two recent biographies chronicle the lives of two musicians who stood at opposite ends of the heyday of ragtime. Scott Joplin defined the new genre and composed some of the most enduring ragtime classics . James Reese Europe, through his innovative...


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