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Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia Paperback – February 1, 1996

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Editorial Reviews Review

Salvation on Sand Mountain is a story of snake handling and strychnine drinking, of faith healing and speaking in tongues. It is also the story of one man's search for his roots--and, in the end, of his spiritual renewal. Writer Dennis Covington came to this ecstatic form of Christianity as a reporter covering a sensational murder case; Glen Summerford, pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, had been accused of attempting to kill his wife with rattlesnakes. There, in a courtroom filled with journalists and gawking spectators, Covington felt the pull of a spirituality that was to dominate his life for the next several years. Attending Summerford's church out of curiosity, he soon forged close friendships with some of the worshippers, began attending snake-handling services throughout the South, and eventually took up snakes himself.

With subject matter this lurid, Salvation on Sand Mountain could have been a Southern-fried curiosity and little more. Covington goes far deeper. Tracing the snake handlers' roots in regional history, in the deep spiritual alienation of mountain people from the secular modern world they have so recently joined, Covington is more than just sympathetic to the snake handlers; in a profound way, he considers himself one of them. His reasoning is sometimes flawed--when he attempts to find snake handlers in his own family's past, for instance, the result is belabored and unconvincing--but there's no doubt that Covington's heart is in the right place. He's also not without his own brand of sly gallows humor, as in this conversation with the elderly Gracie McAllister: "She'd swore she'd never handle rattlesnakes in July again. She'd been bit the previous two Julys. 'I decided I'd just handle fire and drink strychnine that night,' she said. Good idea, I thought. It always pays to be on the safe side."

Covington eventually breaks with the snake handlers, but comes away from the experience a changed man. "Knowing where you come from is one thing, but it's suicide to stay there," he writes. An American Book Award winner and finalist for the National Book Award, Salvation on Sand Mountain is a nuanced, compassionate portrait of an unforgettable spiritual journey. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

After Covington, a writing instructor at the University of Alabama, novelist (Lizard) and freelance journalist, covered the trial of a preacher convicted of attempting to murder his wife with rattlesnakes, he was invited to attend a snake-handling service in Scottsville, Ala. He found the service exhilarating and unsettling; he felt a kinship with the people, for he was only two generations removed from the hill country of Appalachia. Of Scottish-Irish descent, the handlers are religious mystics who believe in demons, drink strychnine and drape rattlesnakes around their bodies. Covington attended other services with Brother Carl Porter; he eventually handled a huge rattlesnake, and recalls that at the time, he felt absolutely no fear. This is a captivating glimpse of an exotic religious sect.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; First Edition edition (March 1, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140254587
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140254587
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (118 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #999,437 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Mark S. Milwee on February 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
I found Dennis Covingtons book Salvation on Sand Mountain to be compelling reading for a number of reasons. First, I was born and raised on Sand Mountain and had heard stories of the snake handlers all of my life, but never had the desire or the inclination to attend one of these churches. Second, having grown up on Sand Mountain I was fascinated to read about the depth of the spiritual commitment of these people. Whether you agree with them or not you have to admit that it either takes a lot of faith, or lack of sense to stick your hand down into a box of rattle snakes! Third, I found this book compelling because as a Baptist pastor and son of a Baptist pastor that has preached all over Sand Mountain, I have to ask myself the question, "How could these people take such a hardline stance on a passage in the book of Mark that scholars argue over whether it was even meant to be included in the original manuscripts of the New Testament?" Of course, I know what the snake handlers would say, "All of his seminary training has ruined a good preacher!" Maybe so, but I'm not going to be sticking my hand into a box of rattlesnakes anytime soon to prove the validity of a questionable passage of Scripture. Finally, I found the book to be fascinating reading and although I question their theology, I admire someone that can believe in something so strongly that they are willing to risk their lives for that belief. Buy the book! You will find it hard to put down, or as I heard someone say once about rattlesnakes, "They are easy to grab, but hard to let go!"
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Christian Engler on January 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
Salvation on Sand Mountain was a book that truly awed me to feel things that I never felt before when it came to faith and being closer with the Spirit. Covington's book will take readers to parts of Southern Appalachia that is so little understood and appreciated, the world of the snake handling, strychchnine drinking, tongue rattling Southerner who has carried this exotic tradition from generation down to generation. The intense faith and passion which these people believe and handle their serpants, is, in a crazy way, admirable and moving. Covington really does have an ear for the core message of what these handlers want to convey: handling snakes (however deadly some of them might be) is to be closer to God. The author writes with a compassionate, freakish warmth, a sacred reverence not just for the people involved but for an act that nobody would fathom themselves participating in. The prose is lush and stimulating and will draw many readers -- however sarcastic or doubtful they may be -- into this unique fire and brimstone subculture before they can sum an opinion of the people who handle snakes in the name of God. Salvation on Sand Mountain is indeed a book that has some of the best writing about the South.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By on January 13, 1999
Format: Paperback
I first read this book while in College. I found it so interesting that I found myself re-reading it over and over. It it an extrodinary look at Southern Apalachia, the culture and lives of it's Mountain people. The prologue is as a fine peice of southern literature as I have ever had the priveledge to read. Portions of the book are chilling, even more so, when you realize that it is all true. Little did I know that 2 years after first reading the book I would live directly in the middle of the area Covington wrote about. I have had the oportunity to meet and know some of the people he described. When my job forced my wife and I to move to Scottsboro, we used the book as a literal road map when we arrived. I have loaned it out several times. I would encourage anyone, in particular Southerners, to read this fascinating book. The recent and much publicised death of one of the book's characters (John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, who was bitten by a rattle snake and died at a recent church service) led me to re-read the it again. I still could not put it down. It is unlike anything I have ever read. When this book wraps itself around you and sinks in it's fangs, there is no letting go.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Dallas B. Koehn on May 20, 2004
Format: Hardcover
When I first read this book about five years ago, I was completely absorbed by the whole 'snake-handling' thing. Everything else Covington was trying to say was fine, but in essence I smiled and nodded while transfixed by the ecstasies and agonies of the handlers. When I returned to it a year or so later, I began to understand a little of the personal journey Covington was trying to describe, in which the snakes and their handlers played a central but certainly not exclusive role. I also knew he was trying to make some point about poverty and powerlessness and being from the South, but... whatever.

Having rediscovered it recently and finished it for the third time, I've come to relish it far more completely than before. Covington tackles snake-handling, spiritual warfare, Southern culture, and self-analysis--weaving them together in a narrative tapestry that doesn't begin to exhaust any single element but dips into each thoughtfully. Don't look for extensive theology, or a sociological overview of Southern history, or (thank God) anything resembling an altar call when it's all over. Look instead for a moving portrayal of some very real people (who in this case happen to have a spiritual fetish for drinking poison and playing with rattlers) and what they end up meaning to Covington. It's bizarre, to be sure, but it's honest and enlightening in the most unexpected ways.
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