Kevin's Reviews > Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington
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Jun 07, 12

Read from June 04 to 05, 2012

This book touched me in a personal way, a way in which I can not rationally expect it to touch you since you are not me and have not shared my upbringing and experiences. I can gladly recommend it as a tourism book, a way for an outsider to view some hidden parts of Southern culture, but so much of my own delight in this story is the simple descriptions that ring so true for me because I grew up in Appalachia, I spent the majority of my life there, I've known those people well. Covington's style is not necessarily spare but it may not be enough to give you-the-outsider the feeling of intimacy that I got.

Doing photography has made me aware of our ability to marginalize our surroundings thanks to their familiarity. I see New Orleans every day and as a result almost never photograph it because, you know, that's just what's outside. That's the familiar. When I see a snapshot from some suburban hills in southern California I'm struck by just how different it all looks even though the photographer there was probably tired of the same old same old, saying to him- or herself "that's just what's outside." I'm sure there's a far more succinct way of stating that daily exposure to something dulls our sense of wonder and our ability to recognize it as something with which other people are not familiar.

All of this is leading up to me saying that while I grew up in Appalachia I never really saw it for what it was until I moved. Now that I'm no longer installed at the edge of of the mountains I feel able to view it with love, something I couldn't do while growing up as I was tired of being surrounded by rednecks and cow pastures. Back then I never really explored anything about it but just accepted it as the default. Now at times I'm subject to fascination with it; the fascination comes and goes in waves and right now thanks to this book I'm on a crest.

Covington steps in to this microcosm of the South with arms wide open, seeking information on the intense passion with which these snake handlers give themselves up to God. Going with him on his journey dovetails nicely with my experiences with the movie Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (which is itself a non-Southerner's wide-eyed exploration of the culture that produced Jim White's first album The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus!, most definitely worth a listen) in that it is a display of something that is simultaneously familiar to me and yet just far enough from my experiences to gain that sense of Other-ness. It is my life through a strange lens: I know those people; I don't know what they're doing. It is so very close to "there but for the grace of God go I" and yet is it God's grace that keeps me from there? Isn't that the very argument of the taking up of serpents: that I am not close enough to God to be able to do it?

Even though I recognize that Covington did not choose his personal religious beliefs before embarking on this tour I am glad of them. Because he is a churchgoing Southerner he is able to say without condescension, "While this is not the norm for me, it is familiar. I want to explore the part that makes this Other." I feel he did it well. He did not adopt an aloof tone as if to say "This is passionless science. I do not judge, merely observe." He wrote from inside and from feeling. This is a story about him as much as them, his religion, his experience, his ecstasy within their services.

I enjoyed every page. It makes me want to go back to the mountains, to re-live my childhood, to force myself to pay attention, to take some risks and dig into parts of the South that I just let slip by. I can't expect this book to move you the same way, but for me it deserves all five stars.
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message 1: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Kevin, I can't say I'm tempted to read this book, but I was touched by your review. I often don't want to read what you've just read, but I always enjoy reading your reviews. You're so thoughtful and express yourself so well in writing...maybe you should write a book yourself!

Thanks!
Kelly


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