Helen Elaine Lee

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364

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)

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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...

(This entire section contains 985 words.)

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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 "angry healing flesh."

It is there that Vesta and LaRue find a sister in the Staples' daughter Ouida, an imaginative, confident child, and a ready-made mother in Ruby. And while Ruby's stories, told in stoop-sitting sessions with the neighbors, are too uncontrolled for the rigid vigil Vesta must keep over her life and emotions, young LaRue is drawn to this other mother, absorbing stories while sitting in a rocker in Ruby's kitchen. These stories ignite his imagination, allowing him to create his own make-believe character, Miss Snake, "who got in and out of fixes each time she appeared, who started out with purple spots but changed each time she shed her skin."

The creation of the Miss Snake stories, as well as the later tales of Tennessee Coal & Iron Company Jones, are Lee's masterstroke, completely rooted in the African American oral traditions of Br'er Rabbit and Anansi the spider. The stories, themselves deserving of their own book, act here to illuminate the narrative and give it a lyrical magic that both captivate and enlighten the characters. In young LaRue's mouth, the stories also represent a connectedness to African American culture and identity; they delight Ruby and Ouida, but dismay Vesta and Eula, who consider them "lies." For Eula and Vesta, the stories threaten to initiate an internal battle with secrets and dreams, long hidden but recurring as closed-off spaces that keep them from knowing peace. And until they understand the gift the Miss Snake stories have to offer, that peace remains elusive, just beyond their reach.

Lee has written in the siblings LaRue, Vesta, Ouida and December (who appear near the end of Part I) a quartet of unforgettable characters whose personalities run counter to expectation. LaRue is a sensitive, intuitive man with a spirit that cannot be crushed; a man who, when recognizing his love for Olive Winters, fights against his impulse to pull away; a man who marks the changes in his world from after the Great War through the 1960s with wonder, a great love for his people and a moving grace. His sister, Vesta, is rigid and frightened, a woman whose retreat from the pain of early disappointments drains the vitality from her life. Ouida supposedly has everything to be desired among black folk of the time—fair skin, vivacious wit, imagination—yet she makes a radical decision to embrace an unconventional love. Then there is December, Ruby and Polaris' daughter, whose arrival at the winter equinox signals birth out of death, but who, under Vesta's excruciatingly restrictive love, becomes a colorless cipher of a Detroit housewife, more concerned with the correctness of her peanut butter selection than the quality of her life.

Lee's novel also displays an adept use of color, light and space as indicators of vitality, of memory, of love and loss. Images appear in unexpected ways: The skin of an orange that stimulates the elderly Vesta's memories; her youthful retreat from the tumult of color into a seemingly serene world represented by an all-white wardrobe and meticulously cross-stitched homilies; the cobalt blue lovemaking of LaRue and Olive. While there are moments in which I wished Lee's style were a little more restrained, or conversely displayed more emotion, these are small quibbles about a book that is so richly imagined.

LaRue Smalls finishes many stories in The Serpent's Gift with, "I've told my friends, now you tell yours." The phrase is most apropos in celebrating the arrival of Helen Elaine Lee and The Serpent's Gift, a book whose colors will linger behind the eyes long after you read the final page.

Sandra D. Davis (essay date 6 June 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096

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 sometimes help the combined household cope during some pretty dark times. LaRue's most fascinating stories are about his mythical alter ego, the colorful Miss Snake.

Vesta's early disappointments rape her of spirit and devour the modicum of confidence she starts out with. As she succumbs, she disposes of all her colorful attire and chooses to wear only white, starched whites, because "white has no history." And the beautiful winsome Ouida finds love in the arms of another woman.

"These are much like people in my family, in all families," Lee says. "This is about how families get along, how they protect their members, or in some cases fail them. No one here is perfect. I think that's what makes these characters so real."

Lee weaves these families' stories together with astonishing lyricism. The tempo is subtle, yet arresting. It is a summer breeze lightly whipping a clothesline full of white sheets on a cloudless summer day.

Wrote a Washington Post reviewer: "Beautifully crafted and profoundly insightful, this staggeringly accomplished first novel redeems the adjective 'heartwarming' from cliche."

The Los Angeles Times declared that Lee's novel "marks the debut of an important new voice on the fictional landscape."

Says her mother, proudly, watching readers respond so positively to her daughter's work, "I didn't even know my daughter had all those funny stories in her!"

It is probably not surprising that Lee, 35, is a success: It's the family way. Dorothy Lee, who has a doctorate from Harvard, taught comparative literature for more than 40 years in the Detroit area, retiring in December after 20 years at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Helen's late father, George E. Lee, earned his law degree at Harvard and had a long, distinguished career as a Detroit trial lawyer. He died two years ago of respiratory disease. Her brother, George V. Lee, is a Detroit graphic designer.

Home was a four-bedroom English Tudor on Fullerton Street in northwest Detroit's Russell Woods neighborhood. Trees lined the streets, and the park across the street offered a sense of privacy and a perfect place for George Lee to take the children sledding in winter, Dorothy Lee says.

On the blackboard in the kitchen, everyone added a new word every day and made a point to use the word at least three times that day. Word games and reading aloud were regular family activities. Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson and many more authors were not just names but regular companions.

Says Dorothy Lee, "We valued creativity, my husband and I, as well as the analytical life."

That is one of the reasons the Lees sent both children to the Roeper School for gifted students in Bloomfield Hills. "There was respect for creativity and individuality," says Helen of her elementary through junior high years there.

Lee graduated from Cass Tech High School, then earned an undergraduate and law degree from Harvard.

She chose law mostly because her father loved it so much. Later it would become a necessary evil—the real job that paid the bills while she worked on the book.

"I thought it was what I wanted to do," Lee says. "I thought it was the way I wanted to participate in life, but it wasn't my gift."

So for four years, Lee practiced law and wrote fiction. At the halfway point, her father died. Then her close friends Eduardo and Andrew died, felled by AIDS. "It was very difficult to keep going," recalls Lee. "It was a very tough time for me."

She sent a half-completed manuscript to publishers. No one bit. But when she completed the book, Atheneum signed her on.

Atheneum publisher Lee Goerner says that stores already are requesting reorders and that "she has done extremely well in Washington," where she lives. "We are very pleased and very proud of what she has been able to do."

One thing she has been able to do is quit what she hopes was her last law job.

"I just want to write. I love language and storytelling. That's what I want to do. That's what makes me feel alive."

Jewelle Gomez (review date September 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1684

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 story begins with a young mother fleeing the violence of a drunken husband in Detroit after the turn of the century, and ends two generations later. The layers of life—birth, anxiety, triumph, love, death, trouble and survival—define a Black family here, but in essence are the history of us all.

When Eula Smalls escapes with her two children she is taken in by neighbors, Ruby and Polaris Staples. They move into the basement apartment and become part of the Staples family. Over time the children—Vesta and LaRue Smalls, Ouida and Dessie Staples—grow to regard each other as siblings: the adults share responsibility for them and each other. Each character struggles to cope with the change that is a part of life. Many ideas and themes are woven through the story, but change and the need to belong are two of the strongest.

The book opens with Vesta, the older Smalls child and the one most resistant to change. Fear of a "misstep" restrains her, keeps her from growing and moving forward:

It was the single misstep that Vesta Smalls believed in. That slight lapse in judgment or balance that could send you hurtling through the air.

Her father had given her this, and she held on to it, sensing that it gave her a certain edge on things, understanding the power of the small deed to rip the sky apart, and return it to seamless blue.

Throughout the book Vesta stays stuck in the memories of her dead father:

Learning the sounds of nascent violence, Vesta could hear anger in his footsteps … the scraping of a chair … a falling fork. Her body tightened when she heard him at the door and relaxed only when he slept, and on the nights when there wasn't sleep, she lay awake and heard the little bits of killing that were delivered from his long graceful hands.

Her fears hold her at a distance from her siblings and from life. She fills her time with compulsive fruit-canning and cleaning, as if attention to detail will keep her memories at bay.

Lee's writing is fluid, elegant and lyrical; it is also lively and conversational, set squarely within the African American oral tradition. These two qualities, of language and of cadence, blend nicely ("It was during one of Vesta's cleaning frenzies that the heart attack knocked her flat. She went down in a cloud of Roman cleanser that dusted her white dress blue"). Lee reinforces the oral quality of the novel by making Vesta's brother LaRue a compulsive storyteller. LaRue resists isolation and stasis by creating elaborate tales, almost daily, like a television soap opera. Over the years he develops two mythical characters: Tennessee Jones, a stalwart adventurer who keeps the family informed about social and political developments, and Miss Snake. "The snake has been around since the beginning of time," says LaRue. "It is what you call grounded, living as it does in absolute intimacy with the earth … when it gets finished with the skin it's wearing, it sheds it, crawling on out of the past and into the future."

LaRue embroiders their stories for the family, and his inventions become the tour guides through a labyrinth of lessons and adventures that frame the "real life" passages. He wields his parables like a baton, using them to interrupt family disagreements, to dig his way through things he doesn't understand, and to woo the girl he finally marries.

LaRue finds kinship with Ouida who, unlike Vesta, is open to the tales he spins. Early in the novel Ouida follows the expected path—marriage—and then divorces. Vesta, more disappointed at this outcome than Ouida herself, asks what her husband did wrong; Ouida responds, "It's nothing he did, Vesta. It's who he is." This is the first articulation of the missing sense of connection in her marriage. But in the summer of 1926 Ouida meets a person who does make her feel connected: "Her kisses were like nighttime secrets, and Ouida swore that her laugh, like rain, made things grow. Zella Bridgeforth touched her somewhere timeless, held her, compelled her with her rhythms, and Ouida answered her call."

Their relationship blossoms in spite of the intolerance that surrounds them. No one openly disapproves, but neither is anyone quite able to look Zella in the eye. Lee presents Vesta's intolerance not as vicious, but as just another aspect of her inability to grow beyond the brutality of the past: "Her fear and mistrust had built up, layer upon layer, until she chose a path that would never bend back and meet itself, and something in her folded like a fan." Vesta repeatedly chooses isolation over connection, shielding herself from painful change but also from the warmth and sense of belonging that human intimacy bestows.

The climate surrounding Ouida and Zella as they set up house together remains cool; they do not deny the word "bulldagger" when it is hurled at them. "Brutal words for brutal people," Zella says. But they refuse to withdraw from the world or the Smalls-Staples family, even though LaRue is the only one who can truly embrace their union.

The narrative sweeps through history in broad strokes, incorporating events that necessarily affect the lives of the Smalls-Staples family: the Depression, Black urban migration, the Civil Rights movement. Lee offers an epic vision of the life of a Black family, something that has rarely been explored in this country's literature. We are able to see Black people managing their own lives within the frame of historical events, like the Depression, that are usually symbolized only by white characters. We see social phenomena like changing neighborhoods from the perspective of stable Black families rather than that of fleeing white families.

But Lee does not sacrifice the individual emotional upheavals to the tumultuous historical events that form the backdrop. She lets us marvel at Ouida's blossoming joy in physical desire without losing touch with how shocking that desire will seem to others. We feel triumphant when LaRue's talents find a use with the WPA and then in the growing Black newspaper field. Lee deftly weaves together deeply personal and sociopolitical developments, keeping each in its proper relationship to the other, as most of us must do in order to go on with life.

By giving Black characters a place in history, Lee makes the literary field seem so much more open than it ever has been. It makes us realize the inadequacy of the familiar stock characters, and that most of the stories of people of color—their observations and experiences through all of the twists and turns of our nation—have yet to be told. Each of them, passed down through generations, is an emotional building block, paving the road for Black writers and providing them with a sense of the familiar to come home to.

Near the end of The Serpent's Gift, Vesta sifts through the things that have accumulated in the family home over the years. She ships a box of items to each remaining family member. Ouida calls her to ask what all the boxes are: "The past," Vesta responds; "If you've got a use for it, it's yours." This is what Helen Elaine Lee has delivered to us—an invaluable piece of the past, a different world that has its practical use for us all.