Young Reader Review: Coming of Age Through a Snake

Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta

I found out about Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta (Knopf, 2010) through the blogger Jennifer Clark Estes who gives great book reviews on children’s books on A Mom’s World (http://onemomsworld.wordpress.com/).   The premise that an anxious, awkward 12 year old boy created a new identity by finding a magical connection with a venomous snake was too good to pass over.  It turned out to be a remarkable, gentle story of reconnecting to nature and coming of age.

Set in the 1980s, 12 year old Linus Tuttle gets an opportunity to remake himself when his father gets a job at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia.  He’s determined to become a new cool Linus, but as soon as he gets off the plane, he begins to see black mambas, a rare poisonous snake, wherever he goes.  A local merchant tells him of the Liberian belief in “kaseng.”

“You might call it a totem.  That’s an American Indian word for the same thing.  Usually it is a tribe that has a kaseng.  There are leopard people, and bush-cow people, and dove people.  But some people have their own kaseng.  A person might be born with a strong connection to the mongoose or the frog.”

The black mamba is NOT a connection that Linus wants.  The same merchant tells him,  “If you do believe in it, and you do have a kaseng, you should not fear your animal.  They do not want to hurt you.  If you accept it, it will give you strength.”

In learning to accept his kaseng with the black mamba, Linus gets bolder, but also careless, and he has a hard lesson of responsibility to learn.  One man’s source of strength can be a source of danger for others.

Scaletta deftly handles the cultural differences between Liberians and Americans, between young and old, powerful and weak.  He doesn’t over dramatize or moralize; he tells a tale that leaves a lot of room for thought.  He builds a compelling story with humor, danger and insight, and doesn’t sacrifice good narrative for drama.

I think of it as I watch people around me, what their kaseng might be, what animal identity would give them power.  Especially since it is the Halloween season, when everyone is trying to find to find some alter ego, or magical spirit, to slip into — we’re all in search of something to strengthen us against the coming winter harshness.

I think it’s a wonderful story of coming to know your strengths and limits in the larger world.  There’s an intangible quality to it that provides a bit of metaphor for understanding human relations to the animal world, but also the first world to the third world.

Scaletta was born in Louisiana and grew up in several states and foreign countries, including Liberia.  His website is here:

http://mudmambas.wordpress.com/

If you’re looking for a good, snaky story for the season that’s not all creepy and morbid, this one will feel perfect.

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