The book I’m reviewing this month – Carl Hoffman’s “Savage Harvest” – is a bit of a departure for these KLCC reviews. For one thing, this is the first time I’m reviewing an advanced copy – the book won’t be available until later this month. For another, award winning journalist Carl Hoffman, perhaps best known for his book, “The Lunatic Express,” isn’t a Pacific Northwest writer. However, he will be speaking at Eugene Public Library in a free talk on March 27th as part of his book tour. So I thought it well worth bringing this fascinating book to your attention.
Hoffman begins his book with an unsolved mystery. On November 21, 1961, Michael C. Rockefeller, the twenty-three year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, vanished off the coast of New Guinea while on a project to collect primitive art for his father’s new museum. Despite exhaustive searches by the Dutch authorities and the Rockefellers, no trace of Michael was ever found.
In “Savage Harvest,” Hoffman alternates his chapters between the carefully researched story of Michael’s life, with the equally captivating description of his own investigations into the rumors about Michael’s death, the cause of which is still officially listed as drowning. One rumor – that he'd been killed and ceremonially eaten by the local Asmat, a native tribe of warriors whose complex culture was built around sacred, reciprocal violence, head hunting, and ritual cannibalism.
Hoffman searched archives in the Netherlands, as Michael disappeared shortly before Indonesia became independent. He’s interviewed witnesses including elderly Dutch bureaucrats and Catholic priests, willing to speak publically only now, more than 50 years later. He’s traced Michael’s steps himself during multiple trips to New Guinea, immersing himself – and even learning the language – to understand the Asmat history and culture.
A well constructed, elegantly written and haunting tale, “Savage Harvest” entertains even as it makes us reconsider our assumptions about colonialism, art, and what lies at the heart of a culture.