When a reviewer asserts that an author may be a rival to well-known young adult fiction author John Green, it certainly makes me take notice as I adore Green and pretty much everything he does. That is exactly what has been said about Jeff Zentner and his book, The Serpent King, which follows three small-town teenagers during their senior year of high school.
The Situation: Dillard Early, Jr, or Dill, has had a few hard years. First, his father is serving jail time for possessing inappropriate pictures of children on his computer. It also doesn't help that the man was a well-known snake-handling preacher with a penchant for handling rattlesnakes and copperheads, while also convincing his congregation to drink poison as their survival would be a sign of having strong faith. Due to the prison sentence, and mounting debts, Dill's life consists of school, work, writing songs he never intends for anyone to hear, and hanging out with fellow outcasts Lydia and Travis. Lydia has managed to put herself on the fast track out of Forrestville, Tennessee, mostly due to her fashion blog and high grades. And while Travis may be a big guy with matching strength, his softhearted nature keeps him from standing up to his alcoholic and abusive father.
The Problem: Dill's daily life is fairly miserable, but the one thing that makes it even more so is a visit to his father in prison. Dillard Early, Sr. seems to get stranger and harder to talk to with every visit, and he still can't seem to admit that he is where he is because he did something incredibly wrong. But avoiding visiting his father only earns him a serious guilt-trip from his exhausted mother. While his family relationships are falling apart, things don't go so well with his friends either as he faces the reality of Lydia leaving for college in New York, which makes hims resentful, causing him to pick fights with her during what will end up being their last year to hang out together. And his mood doesn't improve when she pushes him to also apply for college and maybe get of their small town. For Dill, graduation is beginning to feel more like an ending than a beginning, and before that happens, there is one other ending he must face that he wasn't planning on.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in a small town in Tennessee. Some of the common themes that usually come from a small town setting are present, such as the girl wanting desperately to get out and attend college in the big city, and the boy that feels like he will be stuck there for the rest of his life. Travis even serves as the guy who is actually content where he is and would never entertain thoughts of being somewhere else. And of course there is the unfortunate small town trait of everyone knowing who you are and your family history, especially if said family was part of a recent scandal. Dill can't go anywhere without someone recognizing his face or name. And if they aren't wary of him because of what his dad did, they are angry at him for their perceived belief that it is his fault his father is in jail. As each chapter is told from the point of view of either Dill, Lydia, or Travis, another theme that comes up is the irrefutable and ever-present fact that parents just don't understand. Dill's parents can't understand (or refuse to) why he would want to leave Forrestville when he can stay and work and help pay off the family debts. Travis' father doesn't even attempt to understand his son and his interests. And while Lydia may have won the gold medal among her friends when it comes to parents, even she doesn't get why they would choose to live in such a small town when there are big cities with better opportunities. Oh, and then there is the snake handling. Since the events of this book take place after Dillard Early, Sr's arrest, and after the collapse of his congregation, any scenes of actual snake handling happen through flashback. But Dill's father and mother both believe strongly in the signs of the faith and perceive anyone who doesn't have them as not being a true follower.
My Verdict: Well, I can say that I get the hype now, because this is a fantastic book. Writing about three misfit seniors in high school navigating small town life is certainly not a new idea, but Zentner does it well, and he does it with an original story line and great characters. Sure Dill can be annoying in his more brooding moments, and Lydia was easily one of my least favorite characters for about the first two-thirds of the book, mostly because of her self-righteous attitude and inability to recognize exactly how much suffering her friends endure. But hey, they're teenagers. It's all about them. And while the snake handling could have easily been something thrown in just to keep things interesting, Zentner makes it more than just a one-note detail in Dill's past. The book is surprisingly complicated, without being hard to read or cumbersome, and I think there is something in Dill, Lydia, or Travis that almost everyone can relate to.
Favorite Moment: When Travis stands up to his abusive father.
Favorite Character: Lydia's father, Dr. Blankenship, is almost too good to believe. But I decided to anyway because he is so much fun, without being the parent that ends up being more like a friend. Not only is he great to his daughter, but he's great to her friends, even offering to drive Dill up to the prison to see his father.
Favorite Quote: "I'm tired of watching the world grind up gentle people. I'm tired of outliving those I shouldn't be outliving. I've made books my life because they let me escape this world of cruelty and savagery. I needed to say that out loud to somebody other than my cats. Please take care of yourselves, my young friends." - Mr. Burson, the local bookstore owner.
Recommended Reading: Since John Green was mentioned before, I recommend Looking for Alaska, over his most recent novel, The Fault In Our Stars. Both are good, but Looking for Alaska explores a different kind of heartache.