It is Scottsboro, Alabama, in the fall of 1991. A snake-handling preacher by the name of Glendel Buford Summerford has just tried to murder his wife, Darlene, by snakebite. At gunpoint, he forces her to stick her arm in a box of rattlesnakes. She is bitten twice and nearly dies. The trial, which becomes a sensation throughout southern Appalachia, echoes familiar themes from a troubled secular world - marital infidelity, spouse abuse, and alcoholism - but it also raises questions about faith, forgiveness, redemption, and, of course, snakes. Glenn Summerford is convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. When Dennis Covington covered the trial of Glenn Summerford for The New York Times, a world far beyond the trial opened up to him. Salvation on Sand Mountain begins with a crime and a trial and then becomes an extraordinary exploration of a place, a people, and an author's descent into himself. The place is southern Appalachia - a country deep and unsettled, where the past and its culture collide with the economic and social realities of the present, leaving a residue of rootlessness, anxiety, and lawlessness. All-night video stores and tanning salons stand next to collapsed chicken farms and fundamentalist churches. The people are poor southern whites. Peculiar and insular, they are hill people of Scotch-Irish descent: religious mystics who cast out demons, speak in tongues, drink strychnine, run blowtorches up their arms, and drape themselves with rattlesnakes. There is Charles McGlocklin, the End-Time Evangelist; Cecil Esslinder, the red headed guitar player with the perpetual grin; Aunt Daisy, the prophetess; Brother Carl Porter; Elvis Presley Saylor;Gracie McAllister; Dewey Chafin; and the legendary Punkin Brown, all of whose faith illuminates these pages. And then there is Dennis Covington, himself Scotch-Irish, whose own family came down off of Sand Mountain two generations ago to work in the steel mills of Birmingham, and
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Salvation on Sand Mountain is a story of snake handling and strychnine drinking, of faith healing and speaking in tongues. It is also the story of one man's search for his roots--and, in the end, of his spiritual renewal. Writer Dennis Covington came to this ecstatic form of Christianity as a reporter covering a sensational murder case; Glen Summerford, pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, had been accused of attempting to kill his wife with rattlesnakes. There, in a courtroom filled with journalists and gawking spectators, Covington felt the pull of a spirituality that was to dominate his life for the next several years. Attending Summerford's church out of curiosity, he soon forged close friendships with some of the worshippers, began attending snake-handling services throughout the South, and eventually took up snakes himself.
With subject matter this lurid, Salvation on Sand Mountain could have been a Southern-fried curiosity and little more. Covington goes far deeper. Tracing the snake handlers' roots in regional history, in the deep spiritual alienation of mountain people from the secular modern world they have so recently joined, Covington is more than just sympathetic to the snake handlers; in a profound way, he considers himself one of them. His reasoning is sometimes flawed--when he attempts to find snake handlers in his own family's past, for instance, the result is belabored and unconvincing--but there's no doubt that Covington's heart is in the right place. He's also not without his own brand of sly gallows humor, as in this conversation with the elderly Gracie McAllister: "She'd swore she'd never handle rattlesnakes in July again. She'd been bit the previous two Julys. 'I decided I'd just handle fire and drink strychnine that night,' she said. Good idea, I thought. It always pays to be on the safe side."
Covington eventually breaks with the snake handlers, but comes away from the experience a changed man. "Knowing where you come from is one thing, but it's suicide to stay there," he writes. An American Book Award winner and finalist for the National Book Award, Salvation on Sand Mountain is a nuanced, compassionate portrait of an unforgettable spiritual journey. --Mary ParkAbout the Author:
Dennis Covington is the award-winning author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including Lizard and Lasso the Moon. He teaches creative writing at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
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