Helen Elaine Lee Critical Essays

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.