“Snakes of St. Augustine” by Ginger Pinholster

In her fascinating novel Snakes of St. Augustine, Ginger Pinholster takes a deep dive into two subjects many humans turn away from: snakes and people whose brains operate differently.

As the novel opens, we meet fitness guru Serena Jacobs, who is reporting her mentally different brother Gethin’s disappearance to Police Officer Jeffries. Serena was only eighteen when her mother disappeared, leaving her to raise Gethin. We also soon meet Gethin’s girlfriend Rocky; a charming, bipolar homeless man named Jazz; and Trina Leigh Dean, an elderly snake-lover who runs a serpentarium. This cast of unusual characters interacts in America’s oldest city, St. Augustine.

It is hard to read this novel and not have very personal reactions. First, there are the snakes. One of my earliest memories is of an episode of Gunsmoke where a coral snake crawls under a pillow and kills a man. I had nightmares for years after watching it and still have visceral reactions to anything even resembling a snake. I applaud the author for her efforts to educate us about native snakes and their role in the environment.

The bigger issue the novel explores is the wide variety of ways human brains operate. Again, most of us will have encountered friends or family members coping with autism, depression, bipolar, ADHD, and other differences in mental and emotional processing. A positive aspect of the novel is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the possible outcomes. Just as in life, some of these characters will find ways to integrate into society, while others—no matter how much they are loved and supported—can’t deal with their issues. She highlights the difficulty of getting an accurate diagnosis and adequate treatment, and even if those hurdles are overcome, getting patients to take medication that helps but may have unwanted side effects. Pinholster does a beautiful, masterful job of creating nuanced characters readers will care about.

Pinholster’s impressive descriptions capture Jazz’s powerful emotions. For example, Jazz tries to control his anger: “To keep the shrapnel inside his body from punching through his rib cage, Jazz expanded his lungs, standing as straight and still as possible.” And then there is Jazz’s intense love for Serena: “If he could he would bring her all the light in the world: every glowing creature that ever lurked in a darkened tide pool, every drop of sunshine, a freight train full of still-sizzling comets, stars, and moonlight.” And his heightened sensitivity to others, such as this social worker: “Jazz hugged her, feeling bone and sinew, brittle gaps and feathery skin: death. “You’re sick,” he said. “What’s wrong?” Though Jazz, Pinholster reveals there is much to be admired in differently functioning brains. He is a beautiful character, warmly human and loveable.

Based in part on the true, tragic story of Jason Harrison, a man living with bipolar schizophrenia who was killed by Dallas Police, Snakes of St. Augustine challenges assumptions surrounding mental illness and questions the systems tasked with keeping communities safe. This fine book deserves a wide audience.

Ginger Pinholster

Ginger Pinholster earned her M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte and also holds a degree from Eckerd College. Her first novel, City in a Forest, won a gold medal from the Royal Pal Literary competition. Her work has appeared in The Northern Virginia Review, Eckerd Review, Atticus Review, Blackheart Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, Gravel, and Dying Dahlia Review. Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Ginger now works in Daytona Beach, Florida. She also volunteers with the Volusia-Flagler Turtle Patrol.

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