Helen Elaine Lee Essay - Critical Essays

Lee, Helen Elaine

Introduction

Helen Elaine Lee The Serpent's Gift

Born in 1959(?), Lee is an American novelist.

The Serpent's Gift (1994) centers on an African-American woman named Vesta Smalls and the survival, memories, loves, and losses of her extended family. The novel opens with Vesta as a child, her younger brother LaRue, and her mother moving in with their neighbors, the Staples, after the death of Vesta's abusive father. In their search for stability and happiness, Vesta and the other members of the Smalls-Staples clan pursue different means of coping over the years: LaRue weaves fantastic tales concerning characters named Miss Snake and Tennessee Jones; Vesta attempts to continually protect herself by repressing her memories of her father and his death, and by trying to emotionally isolate herself from others; and their "sister" Ouida Staples eventually finds fulfillment in a lesbian affair. Spanning over sixty years of Vesta's life and using such historic events as the Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights movement as backdrops, The Serpent's Gift has been praised for its moving characterizations and its portrait of a woman continually fearful of that "slight lapse in judgment or balance that could send you hurtling through the air." Lauding Lee's focus on storytelling and her use of dialogue and lyrical language, reviewers have additionally stressed the mystical and mythical qualities of LaRue's tales, comparing the resourceful and unstoppable Miss Snake to such heroes of American folklore as Br'er Rabbit and Anansi the Spider.

Criticism

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Serpent's Gift, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXII, No. 4, February 15, 1994, p. 166.

[In the following review, the critic relates the plot of The Serpent's Gift.]

[Helen Elaine Lee's The Serpent's Gift is a] richly textured first novel that begins with lyrical evocations of loss and love in two intertwined African-American families, but which later becomes more synopsis than saga.

In a nameless midwestern city, in 1910, the already fragile marriage of Eula and Ontario Smalls ends with Ontario's fatal fall while cleaning windows. Eula, with children Vesta and baby LaRue, is taken in by neighbors Ruby and Polaris Staples. The families had first met when Eula, badly beaten by Ontario, had fled with her two children and Ruby had been the only neighbor on the street willing to take her in. The two families now begin to live together with remarkable ease. Young Vesta is treated by Ouida, the Staples' only daughter, as the sister she'd always wanted; little LaRue and Ruby share a common delight in stories and creating beautiful things; and Eula, though scarred, finds solace in her work and in the affectionate security the Staples home provides. But as the story moves forward, the pace of events both personal and public accelerates, shortchanging plot and character along the way. Only LaRue's "famous" stories about Miss Snake, although they too lose much of their early charm as they multiply, seem to slow down the apparent rush to be done with the story. Vesta, forever affected by her family's past, lives a life of rigid order, only slightly relieved by the joy of raising the child during whose birth Ruby dies; Ouida, after a few failed affairs, finds true love with another woman; and LaRue, Ruby's male alter ego, becomes the family's nurturer and chronicler, who offers himself as the serpent's gift, the doorway "to the things that had happened before, to the things that had happened between them—to their history."

The seismic changes in race relations are perceptively noted, as are the realities of African-American lives, but the cursory treatment that results from the sprint to get it all down mars what could have been a magnificent African-American saga.

Paula L. Woods (review date 29 May 1994)

SOURCE: "Tell Your Friends," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 29, 1994, pp. 3, 13.

[In the review below, Woods offers high praise for The Serpent's Gift, lauding Lee's characterizations and focus on storytelling, family, and love.]

As a former member of corporate America who eventually turned to writing, I was extremely intrigued by this novel [The Serpent's Gift] written by Washington attorney Helen Elaine Lee. How many people have I met, fueled by the success of John Grisham or Michael Crichton, who report slaving away at their portable computers, trying to write the next Pelican Brief or Disclosure? Was Lee, I wondered, another one of these misguided souls who'd be better off writing legal briefs than literature? Should she be given that sage advice, "Honey, don't quit your day job"?

But after a marathon reading of The Serpent's Gift while I should have been enjoying the scenery on vacation, I wanted to advise Lee to start writing that resignation letter. For The Serpent's Gift marks the debut of an important new voice on the fictional landscape.

Although there's nary a lawyer or murder weapon in sight, Lee has nevertheless created an emotional, suspenseful page-turner. Her terrain is the human heart; the first two pages of the book alone contain one of the most haunting deaths in recent memory. This passing deeply affects young Vesta Smalls, creating in her a fear of making a critical misstep, of yielding to "the power of the small deed to rip the sky apart, and return it to seamless blue." And as the novel fast-forwards to an aged Vesta, now encased in tattered scarves and surrounded by plastic-covered furniture, you sense that she's paid some terrible price for a misstep, an accident long ago.

There's a saying that goes, "When one door closes, another opens." For Lee's character, the closing off represented by the accident and the violence leading up to it are a new beginning, an opening that propels the 8-year-old Vesta, her mother Eula and younger brother LaRue to the loving and colorful home of Ruby and Polaris Staples. There Eula finds a peaceful place in the basement in which to recede and muse on the nature of her love for Ontario Smalls, a love whose most visible remnant is a serpentine facial scar, which her rescuer and friend Ruby calls...

(The entire section is 985 words.)

Sandra D. Davis (essay date 6 June 1994)

SOURCE: "The Storyteller's Gift," in Detroit Free Press, Sec. E, June 6, 1994, pp. E1, E3.

[In the essay below, Davis favorably assesses The Serpent's Gift and relates Lee's upbringing and education, her influences, and the novel's publication history.]

Helen Elaine Lee casts her spells mostly with blues. She invents seamless blue skies and small water-blue wildflowers. She defines comfort as cerulean and passion as cobalt.

After she works her magic with the tranquil-seductive-scorching hues of blue, she conjures up some mighty tall tales about a snake who finds renewal in the shedding of her skin and two African-American families who learn to pull light from darkness.

Lee, who grew up in Detroit, is the author of The Serpent's Gift, a novel that chronicles the intertwined lives of two families from before World War I through the early 1970s. Released in April, it has garnered rave reviews around the country and seems destined to end the law career of the Harvard-trained Lee.

Lee describes The Serpent's Gift as a story about risk-taking and renewal. It's also about family, so it's appropriate that her six-city tour, a welcome but all-too-rare vote of support by a publisher for a first-time author, brings her to Detroit, where family members get to show her off, and she gets to share the spotlight with those who nurtured her creative spark from early on.

Slender, with long hair with soft springy curls, Lee, who is single, had her mother, Dorothy Lee, and brother, George, at her side as she juggled interviews and appointments. Later this summer, the three of them will load a car with her books and take their own jaunt through the Midwest to cities this tour will miss.

"We are a very close family," George Lee says. "We actually talk to one another. Boost one another. We've always been like that. We're more like friends than family."

It's that kind of family closeness, Helen Lee says, that inspired The Serpent's Gift.

Set in the Midwestern community of Black Oak, The Serpent's Gift is the story of Eula Smalls and her two children, LaRue and Vesta, sent by domestic violence and tragedy into the home of Ruby, Polaris and Ouida Staples. Times are hard. Cotton is still king in the south, and in cities such as Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, blacks and whites are adjusting as throngs of African Americans migrate north in search of jobs and prosperity.

Sensitive, loving and a keen observer, LaRue is the storyteller, weaving great lies that amuse and...

(The entire section is 1096 words.)

Jewelle Gomez (review date September 1994)

SOURCE: "A Piece of the Past," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 12, September, 1994, p. 25.

[Gomez is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. In the following, she provides a thematic discussion of The Serpent's Gift, lauding Lee's focus on African-American history, the past, family, and personal relationships.]

"This all reminds me," says LaRue Smalls towards the end of The Serpent's Gift, "of a story I need to tell you. It's the history of the world, from the beginning to the present." At some point in Helen Elaine Lee's first novel it becomes clear that this is indeed what she herself is doing: she's sliced us a thick wedge of history....

(The entire section is 1684 words.)