Robert Hellenga explores fertile ground in ‘Little Egypt’

From the Chicago Tribune:

The plains and prairies of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” and cities of Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” have come to define the Midwestern literary tradition, while “Little Egypt,” the triangular tip of southern Illinois bound by the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash rivers, has been long overlooked. The swamps and dense forests, pocked by closed factories and coal mines, may have proven to be fertile ground, for it is the place in which Robert Hellenga has rooted his new novel, “Snakewoman of Little Egypt: A Novel.”

Hellenga, the author of five novels such as “The Sixteen Pleasures: A Novel” and “The Fall of a Sparrow,” is often associated with Italy, though he grew up in Three Oaks, Mich., and teaches at Knox College in Galesburg. Because his father’s business was seasonal, Hellenga spent summers in Milwaukee. He remembers that he got to know his father’s employees, mostly Italians, and came to understand the cultures of both: small-town, more austere Methodists with church basement weddings featuring cake and ginger ale punch with chunks of lime sherbet floating in it, and Italian weddings with huge celebratory dinners, lavish celebrations and lots of wine.

Hellenga recalls that he was putting the finishing touches on his last book, “The Italian Lover” when he heard an NPR interview segment featuring Jeff Biggers and his book “The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America.” The tales inspired Hellenga’s curiosity, he explains, leading him to the library where he found not only histories, but also fascinating first-person accounts of life in the region.