American author Dennis Cov­ington visited Hillsdale College for a live reading of his books. Courtesy | Rebecca Gayle Howell

The small Dow A and B con­ference room bustled with eager stu­dents and excited pro­fessors who awaited author Dennis Covington’s reading from his renowned, “Sal­vation on Sand Mountain,” an account detailing his expe­rience with Christian snake­han­dlers in the Appalachian Moun­tains.

Pro­fessor of English John Somerville Jr. invited Cov­ington to speak on Feb. 18 as part of the Vis­iting Writers Program, which brings in well-known con­tem­porary writers throughout the year to speak about their work and them­selves with Hillsdale stu­dents.

“We’ve been doing this program for about 25 years now. We’ve had the pleasure of bringing many writers to campus, but one of my favorites is Dennis Cov­ington,” Somerville said. “This is his third visit to campus.”

Sophomore Carmel Kookogey intro­duced Cov­ington and high­lighted his edu­ca­tional back­ground from the Uni­versity of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, from which lit­erary giants Flannery O’Connor, Donald Justice, and Mar­i­lynne Robinson have also hailed.

His 1995 National Book Award finalist, “Sal­vation on Sand Mountain,” has the same genius.

Orig­i­nally from Birm­ingham, Alabama, “city boy” Cov­ington, chose to sport work-worn jeans, leather cowboy boots, and brown wide-brimmed hat.

“Hey y’all” were Covington’s first words. His native Alabama accent shown through.

“I’m a little hoarse, and I’ll be a little coarse later on,” he said.  

But by God’s good grace, the hoarseness dis­si­pated and failed to thwart his dra­matic reading.

Giving live­liness to the people in his book, Cov­ington con­veyed the many speakers’ atti­tudes through his inflection, shaking his arms up and down when empha­sizing a point, and even singing a deeply southern ren­dition of “I shall not be moved” with great vibrato.

Cov­ington said he was extremely impressed by the faith of the people in the Appalachian church. Despite their poor eco­nomic sta­tuses and lack of formal edu­cation, he said they were very well-versed in the Bible.

“They knew the Bible, back­wards and forwards,The King James Bible,” he said. “Cause what the han­dlers say is, ‘if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for us.’”

The audience responded with laughter.

Perhaps the most cli­matic account of the night was the description of his involvement in a snake han­dling cer­emony. He held the largest rat­tlesnake he had yet laid eyes upon.

Almost dreamlike, he said, “I didn’t stop to think about it. I just gave in. I stepped forward and took the snake with both hands.”

“I knew then why the han­dlers took up ser­pents. There is a power in the act of dis­ap­pearing; there is a victory in the loss of self,” he said.

“It must have been close to our con­ception of par­adise, what it’s like before you’re born or after you die,” he said.  

The periodic pauses from his dynamic readings allowed the audience to hear anec­dotes about  other dan­gerous encounters in his field.

Some notable encounters included: getting punched in the face by a member of the Klu Klux Klan, having his Jeep torched by a group of hunters, and sur­viving a fire­fight with a Sal­vadoran army patrol.

“To Mr. Cov­ington, his life seemed more inter­esting told in stories,” said junior English major Henry Brink. “Every­thing he did seemed com­mon­place to him because they were just everyday things.”

Cov­ington said that he chose to search for stories in the most dan­gerous spots because there is little com­pe­tition.

“You can’t doubt he expe­ri­enced the things that he wrote about,” junior English major Dietrich Bals­baugh said. “After hearing him read, you knew that he knew it was real, whether or not you’ve expe­ri­enced it. Espe­cially some­thing as out­landish as the han­dlers.”

Despite all the carnage he has wit­nessed, the per­sonal pains he has endured, Cov­ington sees God in those who per­severe through suf­fering.  

Even though he has expe­ri­enced both thrill and terror in his adven­tures, Cov­ington takes the greatest joy and comfort in one of the sim­plest activ­ities: walking his grand­children home from school.