A Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman

savage-harvestI read A Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman several weeks ago and have waited until now to review it. That is never a good idea. One thing I can say, however, is that I loved this book. It just might be my favorite non-fiction read of the 2014. It scratched so many of my itches – exploration, anthropology, mystery, famous families – the list goes on.

A Savage Harvest tells the story of Michael Rockefeller and his mysterious disappearance in New Guinea in the early 1960s. He was there on a post-collegiate jaunt collecting artifacts for his father’s new museum of primitive art when his boat overturned in rough waters. Rockefeller attempted to swim ashore, but was never heard from again. Was he a victim of the island’s famous cannibalism? Did he escape to live with the tribal people who fascinated him so much? Or did he drown during the long swim?

The one thing that impressed me more than the brilliant storytelling in A Savage Harvest was the anthropological insight brought to the story by Hoffman. AS a popular work of non-fiction, Hoffman could have easily  fallen into many of the tropes of adventure writing, but instead he explores and interrogates our fascination with the other. It also made me question my own fascination with anthropology. Are we all just colonialist at heart?

Who would like this book? This book is for the traveler and adventurer, even if it is of the armchair variety. Hoffman explores that fine line between exploiting the other and truly appreciating it. He offers up keen anthropological insights wrapped in a mystery story involving one of the most famous families in American history. I would recommend it to those who enjoyed The Lost City of Z by David Grann. But overall, I’d recommend it to anyone who loves good narrative non-fiction.


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