Helen Elaine Lee

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The Serpent's Gift

"Lee has created an emotional, suspenseful page-turner... A book whose colors will linger behind the eyes long after you read the final page."
--Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Vivid metaphors and bravura storytelling give texture and pattern to Helen Elaine Lee's tale...Beautifully crafted and profoundly insightful, this staggeringly accomplished first novel redeems heartwarming from chiche. I hope to hear much, much more from Lee; she's obviously got lots to tell."
--The Washington Post Book World

"Emphasizing the power of storytelling and the strength of memory, Ms. Lee presents a richly layered portrait of individuals struggling to sustain the bonds of family."
--The New York Times Book Review

"Lee's writing is fluid, elegant and lyrical; it is also conversational, set squarely within the African American oral tradition."
--Jewelle Gomez, The Women's Review of Books

"The richness and breadth of her attention and the fair depth of her sympathy would be exemplary in a writer's tenth or twelfth book; coming as they do in a first novel, they constitute a genuine wonder."
--Reynolds Price

"Lee writes with skill and compassion... the lives of these two black women, one a refugee from terror and the other an emblem of succor and kindness, are intertwined for the next three generations as their families form a lasting bond, forged of devotion instead of blood."
--San Francisco Chronicle

Here is an excerpt, the opening of The Serpent's Gift:

It was the single misstep that Vesta Smalls believed in. That slight lapse in judgment or balance that could send you hurtling through the air.

Her father had given her this, and she held onto it, sensing that it gave her a certain edge on things, understanding the power of the small deed to rip the sky apart and return it to seamless blue.

Ontario Smalls had risen from sitting to squatting, untucking one leg and raising it up, and then the other, balancing with his arms and hands, and reached for a grimy corner of glass. He had widened the distance between his feet a fraction of an inch, redistributing his weight on the wooden planks of his scaffold, and stretched to wipe away the last bit of dirt along the window’s edge.

And then, somehow, his feet had gotten reckless, and the scaffold swayed. As he tried to steady himself, he lost his footing and in a blur, an arc of blue, he was hanging over the street, upside-down, his foot tangled in the side rope.

Ontario heard only the creaking of the rope that held him and saw a cloudless sky spread out above. He looked over at his window-washing partner, Ross T. Ross, who sat on his scaffold staring, his mouth O-shaped, and then Ontario swung his body forward, reaching for the rope. And he almost caught it. Almost. As the wooden seat crashed into the window, scattering broken glass, his foot pulled free and he ripped the silence open with a cry.

The spectators followed him to earth, their heads moving downward in unison. But as soon as he had fallen, things resumed, and the onlookers, each on his way somewhere or other, each with his own destination and task, moved on.

Selected Works

"To read The Serpent's Gift is to experience rebirth."
--Walter Mosley
"An ambitious saga, written with the skill of someone born to the art of storytelling."
--Paule Marshall
"A novel of great ambition and achievement. . . about the power and the pain of memory, about the stumbling, staccato rhythms of family, about finding a way to go home again."
--Valerie Boyd, The Washington Post
Short Story
This story (quick link on the left) is part of the novel, "Life Without," about the lives of 10 characters who are incarcerated in two neighboring prisons, serving various sentences for a range of offenses.