Snake Charming

A Tucson Author Spins A Yarn As Big As Texas In Her Debut Novel.

By Charlotte Lowe

Keepers of the Earth, by LaVerne Harrell Clark (Cinco Puntos Press). Paper, $14.50.

TUCSONAN LAVERNE Harrell Clark's first novel, Keepers of the Earth, draws you into a lost world of central Texas hoodoo and regional colloquialisms, rampant with cousin-lust, family feuds and oil greed.

Books Clark keeps up a driving pace in this full-to-bursting novel of mysterious connections between an underworld ruled by a nest of coachwhip snakes, and a family that's moved into town and away from their land--and each other.

Two parallel stories are intertwined: One is that of Cefus, an old, black man instructed in the ways of a hoodoo conjurer, who's now seeking a use for his fading knowledge. He's suddenly needed when a nest of coachwhips is disturbed on Munday land, a situation he knows will wreak havoc and death to everyone involved, including his own relatives.

The other tale is that of the white Munday family, who vacillate between love of their abandoned land and desire for the money an oil strike on it would produce. They have a knack for doing everything possible to rile the snakes and each other. Two first-cousins, married to others outside the clan, embroil themselves in a near-love affair and are punished as severely as any Old Testament God might warrant.

Moving between their two realities are Franklin Delano Jenkins, Cefus' nephew, who wants to learn (as Cefus puts it) "powahful medicine" to add to what he might learn in medical school; and Higgins, a crooked drilling contractor who adapts the truth to his needs, bedding the opportunistic "rosy-haired" Myrtle, an aunt new to the Mundays by way of wedding Manny Munday on his deathbed.

Both Cefus and the Mundays are seeking to preserve the old ways: Cefus wants to pass on his beliefs and wisdom; the Mundays, to varying degrees, want to preserve a sense of family rooted in the land. Both are fighting wars that will be nearly lost in central Texas by the mid-1960s.

Clark was born and raised in a town not unlike the one that houses Keepers of the Earth, 42 miles southeast of Austin. Although the storyline is fictitious, the region, language and folklore are dirt real. Clark, a graduate of the University of Arizona's MFA program in creative writing in 1992, had her beginnings in writing about folk medicine, and later folklore. She learned much of what she knows about hoodoo from a midwife, Aunt Randy, who birthed both Clark and her mother in Smithville. Hoodoo and conjuring were prevalent in pre-World War II central Texas, says Clark. The rest she got from "reading, reading and reading."

The result is a book rich both in knowledge and experience, evident especially when Clark writes of Cefus' "wurking a hand of hoodoo." One such instance is when Cefus is putting together "a luckball...thet oughta wurk tollable, cause them balls always kin talk turkey." To make it he uses the tip of a coachwhip's tail. "He rummaged around in the storage cabinet for other materials he would need," writes Clark. "A length of yarn to cut into four equal pieces, and besides that, some white silk thread and tinfoil. He picked red clover leaves in the yard and scooped up a handful of dirt from the big ant bed where he and Willie Munday had seen the coachwhip that day Willie was witching his place for oil."

Clark can tell you all about such "procedures," as well as drilling for oil and the different occasions upon which feeling "pleased as a possum," "plum-tickled as a possum" and "proud as a possum" are appropriate.

The chapters are headed by evocative black-and-white photographs by Clark, taken on her 240 acres in central Texas, and intended to reflect the region in miniature. They add to the strong sense of place Clark creates.

If there's a problem in this fast-paced, homespun snake-thriller, it's in too many, too-pat resolutions towards the end. But the ride keeps you gripping the wheel.

Keepers fulfills the earlier promise of Clark's book of short stories, The Deadly Swarm, hailed as an "example of the best grass-roots writing" by Frank Waters.

LaVerne Harrell Clark will read from and sign copies of Keepers of the Earth from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, November 14, at the UA Bookstore, on the mall adjacent to the Student Union and Second Street Parking Garage. Clark is also the featured guest of the UA Poetry Center's Fall Series, with a reading from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday, November 20, at the Poetry Center, 1216 N. Cherry Ave. Reservations are encouraged. Call 321-7760 for information. TW

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