The Serpent’s Gift

The Serpent’s Gift
Helen Elaine Lee
Scribner, 1995

For sale at

One of the most striking and heartening developments in American letters in recent years has been the flowering and attendant celebration of African-American writers and of books that have introduced to readers everywhere people, situations, and events that have, hitherto, largely been ignored, denied, or unknown. Now comes Helen Elaine Lee’s supremely assured The Serpent’s Gift, a first novel that gives to us—with the fullest emotional resonance, humor, and exultation in the novelist’s art—the intertwined stories of two families from early in this century to our own times.

Central to this haunting (and sometimes haunted) novel are the mothers, a study in contrast in strength and rigidity, Ruby Staples and Eula Smalls, and their children: LaRue Smalls, adventurer, storyteller, and chronicler of his people; his sister Vesta, intimidated by life from an early age, yet determined, valiant even, to hold her disparate family together; and Ouida Staples, a rare beauty who elects, in the face of convention, to spend her life with another woman. Each will face trials and challenges and sometimes be transformed, shedding like the serpent, an old skin, reborn by the art of invention.

About Helen Elaine Lee

Helen Elaine Lee is a graduate of Harvard College (1981) and Harvard Law School (1985). She is a novelist and short story writer. Her first novel, The Serpent's Gift, was published by Atheneum and her second novel, Water Marked, was published by Scribner. Her short story “Blood Knot” appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Ploughshares and the story “Lesser Crimes” appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Callaloo. Helen was on the board of PEN New England for 10 years, and she served on its Freedom to Write Committee and volunteered with its Prison Creative Writing Program, which she helped to start. She has written about the experience of teaching creative writing in prison in a New York Times Book Review essay, “Visible Men”. Her stories about prisoners have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, Hanging Loose, Best African American Fiction 2009 (Bantam Books), and Solstice Literary Magazine. Her novel Pomegranate, which will be published by Simon Schuster’s Atria Books, in the fall of 2021, is about a recovering addict who is getting out of prison and, inspired partly by the love of a woman on the inside, strives to stay clean, get her kids back, and choose life. Helen is Director of MIT’s Program in Women’s & Gender Studies.


Share this Post