Southern culture. Teenage angst. A bridge by a flowing river. And a preacher who believes rattlers can tell whether or not you are a true believer. This book surely has it all for the young adult enthusiast, which I totally am.
“The Serpent King” by Jeff Zentner centers around Dillard Early Jr., whose daddy was a “signs preacher” and used venomous snakes and poison to see if his congregation were above reproach. Of course, now Dillard’s preacher daddy is in jail for child pornography, and that reputation fogs Dillard’s life in the small town of Forrestville, Tennessee. Dillard’s family life is poor because of a massive medical debt hanging over them, which Dillard and his life-weary mom work to repay.
Dill has exactly two friends. One is Travis, whose family life is also terrible and whose obsession with a fantasy series that sounds a little like Game of Thrones and a little like Lord of the Rings is one of his main defining traits. But it’s Travis’s gentle giant character that will have you fall in love with him. The other is Lydia, whose life is so far opposite of Dillard’s and Travis’s it’s almost painful to read her somewhat judgmental and narrow-minded perspective. She’s the daughter of a dentist. She is loved by her parents. She has a car. Her number one college pick is NYU. She runs a fashion blog that is immensely popular and gives her a notoriety beyond their little town. When compared to Dill and Travis, you might scratch your head as to why the hell they are all friends.
I can tell you. Loyalty. They had no one else, and in turning to each other, their friendship became a way to survive in Forrestville, where on any day any one of them could be bullied and picked on or, in Dill’s case, screamed at by ex-parishioners of his father’s church. The fact that these misfits of Forrestville High found each other made me doubt Lydia’s ever-present belief that she was wronged by having to grow up there; if she hadn’t grown up there, she would never have met two of the most loyal boys she’ll ever meet, a fact I think she realizes as the book progress. Lydia gains a wider perspective, which benefits the growing maturity of her character.
But for Dill, things are changing too much. It’s senior year, and while Lydia is happily planning her what-is-sure-to-be-her outstanding future, Dill feels the cage of his small life shrinking dramatically. He writes music, but being told his whole life that it’s a sin to use it beyond church definitely puts a damper on his enjoyment of creating his songs. Zentner definitely shows a side of a crazy church culture that remind me of Boyd Crowder in Justified (😀). Plus, Lydia’s leaving him, and the fact that she doesn’t seem to care breaks his little ol’ heart. Dill is in almost in a constant state of conflict with himself, wanting to be more, like Lydia, while still retaining his belief in God and trying to respect his less-than-deserving-of-respect parents.
Dill definitely both broke and won my heart. His desire to BE something is tangible, but his circumstances hold him back continuously. His desire to break free of the chains his mother and father and their religious beliefs created had me cheering him on, even when he didn’t believe in himself and had doubts, which was more often than not.
Zentner created three characters about whom I not only cared but for whom I rooted. I’m not going to lie; I cried a few times. Okay, more than a few, but sometimes it was happy tears, ya know? But be warned: Sometimes, it wasn’t.
If you enjoy a good young adult read about kids who are trying to define their identity, sometimes despite their circumstances, you’ll definitely want to pick up “The Serpent King” by Jeff Zentner. I loved it, and I know anyone else who gives it a shot will too!
Until next time, my lovely readers, enjoy your angsty YA!
Ta-ta for now, my dears,