Want to capture the reader’s attention? Construct an opening that is so intense, so captivating, so interesting that no human with a beating heart can put the book down.
Award-winning travel writer Carl Hoffman has done just that in his third book, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, an exquisitely researched investigation into the death of a 23-year-old Rockefeller scion in a remote corner of New Guinea.
The tale opens on November 19, 1961, when Rockefeller, freshly graduated from Harvard, leaps from his overturned catamaran into the Arafura Sea and attempts to swim to shore, never to be seen or heard from again.
For nearly 50 years no one really knew what happened to Rockefeller, who had been collecting primitive art in Asmat, an inhospitable swath of swamps and rivers on the southwestern coast of New Guinea. In the first nine pages of his book, Hoffman lays out his version of Rockefeller’s dramatic end in gripping detail.
Using empty gasoline cans to keep him afloat, Rockefeller swims for 18 hours before arriving at the mouth of the Ewta River, where he encounters a group of 50 local warriors in canoes. An exhausted Rockefeller approaches the canoes for help only to have a spear driven into his ribs.
What follows is a step by step account of how Hoffman envisions the Asmat people ceremoniously killed Rockefeller, ate his brains and carved his bones into weapons and jewelry. Hoffman’s detailed re-creation gleefully withholds no gory detail.
“Blood oozing from his mouth,” Rockefeller has his chest held off the ground and “with one blow of an ax in the back of his neck” he is dead. His throat is then slit with a bamboo knife, the head pressed back “until the vertebrae cracked.” His body is butchered. A hole, two inches in diameter, is cut into his right temple. “They shook the brains out onto the leaf of a palm, scraped inside the skull with a knife to get every last bit,” writes Hoffman, “then mixed the mass with sago, wrapped the leaf up, and roasted it on the fire.”
The reader wants to look away but can’t. Hoffman’s opening awakens that morbid inquisitiveness in the most taboo of subjects—cannibalism. In those nine pages, the author plants a seed that carries his book for another 300 pages. Why would humans eat each other? How would they do it? And, more specifically, how did a young man from one of the world’s most influential families end up with his skull wrapped in banana leaves?
Savage Harvest tells not just the tale of Michael Rockefeller in Asmat but also the personal narrative of Hoffman’s journey, nearly 50 years later, as he tracks down new evidence related to Rockefeller’s disappearance. The book constantly jumps back and forth between the early 1960s and 2012, which provides an engaging comparison of both Rockefeller and Hoffman’s motivations while in Asmat.
Throughout this fast-paced report, Hoffman remains keenly aware of his unsettling relationship with his subject. They are both foreigners in an undeveloped land who are on a quest to reappropriate sacred local customs. Rockefeller came in search of art. Hoffman comes in search of stories. Throughout the first two-thirds of the book, it seems as if Hoffman is on the verge of repeating Rockefeller’s follies, casting himself as an outsider in search of ancient savage secrets.
But just as the reader begins to lose faith in Hoffman’s voice, the author awakens to his flaws.
“I’d been guilty of the same sins for which I was critical of Michael and the Rockefellers themselves,” he writes, “passing through Asmat too quickly, assuming that I was so important that I could pepper them with questions and out would pour their deepest secrets.” Such self-awareness allows the reader to trust Hoffman and fully engage in his fantastical story as if it were the ultimate truth.
Indeed, Hoffman lays out a convincing case that Rockefeller did not drown but, as many suspected, he was eaten and killed by local warriors as part of a sacred ritual of cannibalism. While none of the Asmat people ever admit to their ancestor’s killing Rockefeller, Hoffman discovers enough Dutch historical documents and anecdotal evidence to quell any doubts the reader may have.
Of course, like many historical-anthropological books, Hoffman’s tale at times gets bogged down in details. Despite a map on both the front and back inside cover, it is often hard to figure out where the narrator has traveled. And, thanks to foreign pronunciation and similar format, the names of many characters, both Dutch (Asmat was once a Dutch colony) and New Guinean, tend to blend together. But the momentum created in the opening scene of cannibalism easily carries the reader through the more pedantic sections.
Yet, it is those very same details that propel the reader through Savage Harvest. Hoffman describes how warriors slit Rockefeller’s body from “anus to his neck, through one side of his trunk to his armpit, across the collarbone to his throat, and down the other side.” His sternum was ripped loose. His arms and legs cut off. His entrails pulled out “with a vigorous jerk.” Compelling. Intoxicating. Sensational. Savage Harvest is a great read, as long as you’re not eating lunch.
“Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art,” by Carl Hoffman, William Morrow, in bookstores now