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Review: ‘Savage Harvest’ by Carl Hoffman

Review: ‘Savage Harvest’ by Carl Hoffman post image

Title: Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
Author: Carl Hoffman
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2014
Publisher: William Morrow
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★☆

Bloggers Recommend: Since Michael Rockefeller disappeared while hunting for art in the jungles of New Guinea, rumors have circulated about his death – potentially in a ceremonial act of cannibalism. In this real-life mystery, journalist Carl Hoffman connects with new generations of an ancient tribe to uncover the events that led to Rockefeller’s death. It’s an illuminating and nuanced look at what happens when cultures collide.

Review: Michael Rockefeller, the youngest son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from Harvard University and serving a short stint in the U.S. Army, he joined an expedition to New Guinea to help with a documentary on the Dani tribe. After returning home briefly, he headed back to the region to study the Asmat tribe and add to his father’s collection of “primitive” art.

On November 17, 1961, the boat Rockefeller was in capsized off the coast of New Guinea. When it appeared no one was coming to the rescue, Rockefeller left the boat to swim about 12 miles for shore. His last words to his expedition partner — “I think I can make it” — are the last words he said to anyone. His expedition partner was rescued, but despite a massive manhunt, Rockefeller was never seen again.

In Savage Harvest, journalist Carl Hoffman travels to the jungles of New Guinea to try and uncover the myster of Rockefeller’s disappearance using a collection of missing documents and first-hand interviews with the descendants of the Asmat warriors who may have found Rockefeller and, in an act of retaliation and spiritual balancing, killed and eaten him.

One of the things that works best about Savage Harvest is that it is both a strong historical mystery and a compelling contemporary travel adventure. Hoffman has new information about Rockefeller’s disappearance that sheds new light on what may have happened to him and knows how to write a story about venturing into a culture that is drastically different than the one most of his readers will be familiar with. I enjoyed the way he balanced those threads in the story. 

Hoffman also does a great job of explaining how and why cannibalism was an important part of Asmat culture until very recently. It’s tempting to think of the Asmat as “savages” — as many in Rockefeller’s time did — but to do so dismisses the complicated and nuanced culture that they developed. Rockefeller found himself vulnerable and alone in a dangerous place, but Hoffman convincingly shows how the behavior of men who came to New Guinea before him are at least partially to blame for his eventual fate.

Other Reviews:

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf March 19, 2014, 12:09 pm

    This sounds fascinating. Great review!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 19, 2014, 4:37 pm

    I started this book and set it aside because I was getting bogged down by all the details. Now, I’m reading lots of great reviews so I’m wondering it it was my mood at the time. I guess I need to pick it back up and give it another try.

    • Kim March 25, 2014, 9:43 pm

      I think it does start out a little slow, but I found all of the history in New Guinea to be fascinating.

  • Christy March 19, 2014, 8:43 pm

    What a coincidence. The book I’m reading about civil rights mentioned Michael’s death as an aside, as it happened not long before his father delivered a commencement address to Spelman College.

    This book seems like a cross between Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z (haven’t read the latter yet, but I have read Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure which is also about the search for Fawcett in the Amazon). I’ll have to add Savage Harvest to my to-read list.

    • Kim March 25, 2014, 9:42 pm

      Yes! Those are great comparisons — it reminds me a lot of those books in the sort of tropical adventure mystery genre.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End March 19, 2014, 8:50 pm

    Fascinating! I never knew this had happened, but it sounds like an intriguing story. I was actually just reading about cannibalism, also in New Guinea — there was some scientist who discovered that a very strange illness that only seemed to occur in this one tribe in New Guinea was happening because of cannibalism.

    • Kim March 25, 2014, 9:44 pm

      If I remember correctly, cannibalism in New Guinea continued until not especially long ago, since it took so long for that area to be populated and, to a degree, Westernized. The book you mentioned sounds interesting!

  • tanya (52 books or bust) March 20, 2014, 8:49 am

    I have to read this book. It is ticking all my boxes. Rockefeller, exploration, colonialism. Helllo!

  • Trisha March 22, 2014, 9:26 pm

    I went and added this to my Barnes and Noble wish list before I even made this comment. This sounds absolutely fascinating.

  • susan March 31, 2014, 3:11 pm

    Maybe he should have stayed with the capsized boat. Yikes quite a mystery that he was never found. Sounds like an interesting read. cheers.

  • Clint) April 6, 2014, 10:19 pm

    I just saw a story on this this morning on the National News. I think I may have to pick this one u from the library. Thank you for the GREAT review.