Three characters: the girl from the rich/educated family, the fantasy nerd from a self-employed/abusive father family, the poor kid from a religious family with a parent in the penitentiary, all living in a very rural town in Tennessee. Zentner creates these three characters as strands of fabric from which to set up a loom to weave all of the complex intricacies of rural America, and he does so artfully and with care.
I have thought long and often about how I might write a book about growing up poor in a rural area. In this world where people seem to want to participate in the Poor Olympics or, alternatively, the Poor Shaming Olympics (held in odd years), the market is saturated with stories about how people’s lives were or are difficult. We all love a bootstraps story and hope the laces are strong enough to lift us when we decide to have a go.
The Serpent King hit very close to home for me. Growing up rural comes with its own challenges, which Jeff Zentner skillfully touches on throughout the book. There is the overarching theme being too well off to belong in a small town, you might be considered a “fag” or a “hippy” for owning a Prius or bothering to go to therapy or learn about technology or go to college. You might say you want to make a life for yourself and be met with “Is right here not good enough for you?!” which is actually a combo of a guilt trip of “please don’t leave” mixed in with a little “I don’t understand what is happening.”
The moment when Lydia’s dad takes her aside and tells her not to look down on her roots is a very important inclusion and Zentner should be applauded for it. It’s all too easy to fall prey to the “I escaped!” trope while burning everything in your wake. It is possible to be from somewhere while simultaneously wanting more. Wanting different. And yes, wanting something better. It is not okay to look back over your shoulder and scoff at the people that couldn’t choose to leave, that might not have the opportunity or the ability to seek out better pastures. It is also not okay to shun and ridicule those who do, treating them as outcasts who don’t deserve to return “home.” (Ironic finger quotes intended.)
Please read The Serpent King. Please. For me and for all children who did not choose their place and situation of birth and had to decide to be brave for themselves, even when it felt like they were turning their back on home.