Today’s book I would like to share with you is Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman. For my Twitter followers, me writing about this book is surely not a surprise – I mentioned it couple of times already, praising it both on- and offline.
As a huge true crime buff, I was intrigued by the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller and stumbled upon the book recommendation on a subreddit. I have a habit of immediately searching for the book, which led me to the Amazon store, with a discount for Kindle edition. I clicked as fast as I could on that “one-click” buy button and then… Life got in the way, as it usually is with me and books. I think almost a year has passed before I started reading it, and couple of months before I finally finished it – not because I found it boring, but because my studying, and at times, health issues, were taking up the most of my time.
Still, a true crime book and slow reading tempo don’t really equal a book review on a science blog, right? Well, that would be true, if the book was only about that. Savage Harvest is actually a blend between a biography, travelling diary, and anthropological research. I went into the book expecting to gain insight into Rockefeller’s life and death, but I learned so much about the indigenous culture in New Guinea; Hoffman also gives an astonishing historical overview of the political and cultural situation, the discovery, and tribal relations of the New Guinea.
When I was a child, I used to watch many documentaries, and the word “cannibalism” was often mentioned in rather hush tones, and as the only descriptor of certain tribes. No rituals, no gods, no traditions mentioned, just… cannibalism. By the time I started reading Savage Harvest, I was aware of the complexities that followed a culture, any culture, and especially one as complicated as the culture of New Guinea seemed to me. But reading this book, I learned so much more; the people of New Guinea weren’t some distant islanders on a spot on a map far away anymore, they became actual people, with their intricate system of believes, complicated language, and centuries-old traditions.
The book also touches on racism and culture clashes, and how, for centuries, indigenous cultures were merited through the western lenses, forced to adapt to our rules and religion; New Guinea was not an exception to this rule, as it was colonized by various European countries for years, mostly notably the Netherlands, which claimed the western part of the island.
As a non-native English speaker, I always rate a book by the flow and how easily I can understand it; this book is getting my highest praises. I also really liked how some chapters were written in the present (author’s) time, and some were purely in the past, but all of them worked perfectly in coherence. Furthermore, it’s obvious that Carl Hoffman tried to immerse himself as much as possible, in order to gain a relatively objective insight into the tribal culture he was investigating; he learned how to speak the Indonesian language and even lived with the tribe in the southwest of New Guinea, the same place which Rockefeller was visiting, collecting cultural artifacts, and ultimately disappeared from.
The whole book is, to me, a fascinating insight, and a fantastic mixture of genres that I didn’t expect to work that well together. I recommend this book to everyone who loves to read, even if they don’t have a big interest in topics this book deals with.
If you read this book, I would very much like to hear your thoughts and opinions; did you like it as much as I did? Will this book find its way to your reading list? Let me know in the comments!