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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

Author: Jeff Zentner

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Coming-of-age drama

Time of plot: Present day

Locale: Forrestville, Tennessee

Principal characters

Dill, a guitar-playing teenager who is haunted by his past

Travis, his fantasy-loving friend who comes from an abusive home

Lydia , his...

(The entire section contains 963 words.)

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Author: Jeff Zentner

First published: 2016

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Coming-of-age drama

Time of plot: Present day

Locale: Forrestville, Tennessee

Principal characters

Dill, a guitar-playing teenager who is haunted by his past

Travis, his fantasy-loving friend who comes from an abusive home

Lydia, his friend and crush, an ambitious young woman looking to make a name for herself in the fashion world

Dillard Early Sr., his father, a snake-handling preacher who is imprisoned

Dr. Blankenship, Lydia's father and Dill's surrogate father figure

The Story

The Serpent King is the coming-of-age story of three high school seniors, Dill, Travis, and Lydia, all of whom are outcasts in their small town of Forrestville, Tennessee. Each of them is longing for escape from a town named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan: Dill seeks to free himself from the long shadow of his infamous father, a snake-handling preacher who was jailed for child pornography; Travis tries to escape the pain inflicted on him by his brother's death in war overseas and his father's drunken rages by entering the fantasy worlds of wizards and magic in books; and Lydia longs for a life at a college in New York City, where she can pursue her dreams of working in the fashion world.Courtesy of Random House Children's Books

During the course of the novel, each of the three main characters must come to terms with the pasts they want to leave behind and the futures they are attempting to carve out for themselves. The most conflicted of the three is Dill, who feels a sense of responsibility to his mother, who is portrayed as both a tragic figure and a menace to her son's mental health. The legal expenses incurred by Dill's father's trial have bankrupted the family, which Dill's mother blames her son for because he had refused to lie and claim the images of child porn were his. Dill wants to leave town to get away from his father's infamy and is encouraged by Lydia, who sees Dill's talent as a musician. Travis also longs for escape and finds it in a girl similarly enchanted by fantasy novels whom he meets online. But before either can move forward, just as Lydia is planning on doing, tragedy strikes: Travis is killed by drug addicts looking to rob him.

Travis's death brings Lydia and Dill closer than ever before. Ultimately, their friendship blossoms into a romance. However, the romance is tinged with a bittersweet aspect as their relationship occurs during the spring and summer before Lydia is to move to New York to attend college. Yet during that time, Lydia helps Dill confront his depression over his family's losses and Travis's death by getting him to apply for and get accepted to a local college in another town in Tennessee. She also promotes his music on her popular fashion blog. Before long, her efforts begin to pay off, as Dill becomes something of an Internet sensation.

Dill does not want to lose Lydia and she does not want to lose him. But as the novel comes to an end, it remains uncertain as to whether they will have any sort of life together, though they remain passionately committed to each other. But perhaps more important, Lydia has given Dill the courage to escape his family's past and forge a new path for himself.

Critical Evaluation

Upon its publication, The Serpent King, which was author Jeff Zentner's first novel after working for several years as a musician, was recognized for its successful and genuine exploration of several themes relevant for young adults. The novel received almost universal critical acclaim. It earned starred reviews in Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly and won the William C. Morris Award, presented by the American Library Association (ALA). It also found its way onto a number of "best of" lists by the end of 2016.

Critics were particularly impressed with Zentner's portrayal of his three teenaged main characters, Dill, Travis, and Lydia, as both endearing misfits and best friends. They also praised the way Zentner wrote third-person chapters from each of the three characters' points of view, providing clear differences between them as well as insights into the way each character thinks, talks, and reacts to other characters and events. As each character takes a turn telling part of the story, the reader comes to better understand why that particular character sees and perceives the world in the way that they do.

Another notable aspect is how the characters relate to the world through the technology: Dill uses the library computer, having no computer or cell phone himself because they had been taken by the authorities following his father's arrest for child pornography; Travis has a cell phone but no Wi-Fi; and Lydia is completely connected, with laptop and smartphone ever at the ready. Their online connectedness or lack of connectedness also adds to the distinction of their individual voices.

A final key aspect of the book centers on the role religion plays in the lives of the main characters. Dill's fundamentalist upbringing leaves little room for individual wants or desires, while Lydia's more nuanced approach to faith provides Dill with a viewpoint that allows him to maintain his faith while at the same time giving him room to escape his oppressive past.

Further Reading

  • Couri, Sarah. Review of The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. The School Library Journal, 21 Oct. 2016, blogs.slj.com/printzblog/2016/10/21/the-serpent-king. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.
  • Review of The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner. Kirkus, 8 Dec. 2015, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jeff-zentner/the-serpent-king. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.
  • Zentner, Jeff. "Serpent King Author Jeff Zentner on Quitting Music and Finding 'the Best Kind of Fame.'" Interview by Betsy Phillips. The Washington Post, 9 Feb. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2017/02/09/serpent-king-author-jeff-zentner-on-quitting-music-and-finding-the-best-kind-of-fame. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.
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