“What a special place I have in my heart for [those] who dream of a bigger world than the one they inhabit,” writes Nashville novelist Jeff Zentner in his debut young-adult novel, The Serpent King. In Forrestville, Tennessee—a town named after Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest—three friends unite for two reasons: one, not fitting in, which leads to: two, getting out.
Young musician Dillard Early Jr. has been branded an outsider because of his family’s Pentecostal faith: his dad is a snake handler and poison drinker, and his granddad, The Serpent King, wore snake skins and chattered in tongues while wandering the streets of Forrestville. After Dill’s father is sent to prison and his relationship with Dill’s mother becomes strained at best, Dill leans on his friends, Lydia Blankenship and Travis Bohannon, all the more.
Travis is a gentle giant who works hard in the family lumberyard, largely because he has no choice. He is obsessed with a series of fantasy novels that afford him the escapism and connection he craves, but his reading estranges him even further from his abusive alcoholic father. Through the Bloodfall series, Travis begins to picture a bigger life for himself. He starts writing, meets a girl, and begins to see possibilities that he couldn’t previously imagine.
And Lydia—smart and sassy Lydia has always had a plan for getting out, and she’ll make sure her friends get out, too, if she has to drag them by their toenails. She’s a popular fashion blogger and a big-thinking, fast-mouthed friend, and her solid support makes her the anchor to this triad of outcasts.
Told from these three points of view, The Serpent King weaves a story of found family: when our own families don’t provide the connections we need, these are the people who fill the void. And as in any relationship in which one person clearly has the advantage—as Lydia does here—motives can become murky, and friendships can strain. From that point, there are only two outcomes: snap or evolve.
The Serpent King is also a story of how indebted we are to our parents, and it explores how much we must pay for the sins of those who share our (sometimes poison-filled) blood. Generational expectations weigh heavier on teens, perhaps, than on other family members, and Zentner’s characters embody this truth beautifully. When family expectations are too small, too tight, dreams get laid aside. It’s a danger that Dill and Travis struggle with throughout their stories. Without Lydia, they might not have any dreams at all.
Readers will root for Dill, and Travis, and even Lydia (who doesn’t need the rooting, but appreciates it anyway, thank you very much), and will likely weep in reading at least one of these small-town escapes. But the paths these characters take are their own, and that’s more than they could imagine even a few short months earlier.
Zentner’s clipped writing style and succinct structure provide a vivid sense of place and time and make his characters relatable, his style unique and fresh. If you’re familiar with train-trellis entertainment, if your friends have ever filled in for family, if your dreams have been endangered by others, or if you sense that something bigger and better lies ahead, you will love Lydia, Dill, Travis, and Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King.
Tagged: Children & YA