SAVAGE HARVEST: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism,and Michael Rockefeller’s
Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
By Carl Hoffman
Morrow, 336 pp., illustrated, $26.99
Michael Rockefeller’s last known act was to leave his overturned boat and begin swimming for shore, a pair of empty plastic gas containers tucked under his arms as makeshift floaties. It was Nov. 19, 1961, and the scion of one of America’s wealthiest families was just 23, a recent Harvard graduate who had come to New Guinea to collect indigenous art for his father Nelson’s new project, the (now defunct) Museum of Primitive Art. What happened to Rockefeller next is a mystery that sits at the heart of Carl Hoffman’s sometimes fascinating but deeply flawed “Savage Harvest.”
The author of two previous travel books, Hoffman brings an adventurous spirit to the story of Rockefeller among the Asmats, the local people who live in the watery coastal villages in houses built on stilts and connected by boardwalks. Hoffman went deep, learning Bahasa Indonesian and living for a month with an Asmat family, practicing the kind of immersive journalism that can yield deep insights and cross-cultural understanding. His passion for solving the mystery of Rockefeller’s disappearance is apparently heartfelt — if occasionally unsettling, especially when he castigates the dead man’s family for not going to the same lengths, or reaching the same conclusions, he did.
Hoffman believes, along with several Dutch missionary priests who served in the region, a former Dutch colony, that Rockefeller made it ashore that day in 1961, only to be killed by the Asmats, then eaten — a process he describes in gory, if completely speculative, detail in the book’s opening pages. That there is no evidence for this doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for telling a story of cannibalism, headhunting, and savagery, one in which he employs every imaginable discarded trope of primitivism (along with a handful of adjectives like “inscrutable” and “untamable,” the word “exotic” appears 12 times). When an acquaintance urges Hoffman to see in the Asmat a people burdened by poverty and a lack of health care and education, he rebukes her for seeing them as “victims,” insisting that they are, to him, “warriors.” In the end, what we learn about Rockefeller, or the Asmat people for that matter, pales compared with what we learn about the author. “I don’t quite know where my obsession with the primitive, as it used to be called, started,” Hoffman writes (maybe Tarzan movies, he thinks), but it’s clearly still in full force between these pages.
THE LITTLE GIRL WHO FOUGHT THE GREAT DEPRESSION: Shirley Temple and 1930s America
By John F. Kasson
Norton, 320 pp., $27.95
Her hair dyed and curled, a year lopped off her age, the young Shirley Temple burst into movie stardom in 1934’s “Stand Up and Cheer!” (she’d already appeared in several earlier films, mostly one-reel numbers in a series called “Baby Burlesks”).
For the next five years, she was the world’s top-grossing film star. But that’s not all she was, cultural critic John F. Kasson argues in a compelling new book. For moviegoers during the Great Depression (a much larger population than moviegoers today, he points out), Temple provided more than escapist entertainment. A “figure of radiant confidence and cheer,” she was “the supreme model of American girlhood,” lifting a nation’s spirits with a smile as infectious, Kasson points out, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (and as needed).
This isn’t a traditional biography; Kasson is more interested in the context in which Temple became such an icon. He’s particularly astute in parsing the movies in which she costarred with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a sublime dancer forced into subservient roles on Hollywood’s Jim Crow screens (Temple appearing in blackface in at least one of them). Kasson devotes only a few pages to Temple’s life after stardom (including the bizarre detail that during her brief first marriage, she and her husband lived in her converted playhouse in the backyard of her childhood home, at her mother Gertrude’s suggestion), after which Temple (who sounds truly likable, despite it all) escaped to a life, one hopes, she could live for herself.
LABOR DAY: True Birth Stories
by Today’s Best Women Writers
Edited by Eleanor Henderson
and Anna Solomon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
320 pp., $26
Is the way we give birth now different than it was in past centuries? Well, yes and no. The biological imperatives remain pretty much eternal, and the emotional wallop of new motherhood seems universal. That said, modern pregnancy and childbirth take place in a context of relentless social media yet attenuated social ties, a paradox in which privacy seems almost passé (do people even apologize anymore for TMI?), but isolation is common. How better to ease the loneliness and fear than by sharing stories?
Here, then, are Julia Glass, Danzy Senna, Heidi Pitlor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Lauren Groff, and 25 other writers telling their tales. They include miscarriages, stillbirths, unkind doctors and nurses, medical emergencies, disrupted adoptions, husbands who arrive a moment too late, expectant grandmothers who arrive all too early, bearing advice. “Miracles are miracles,” Groff writes, “because they are impossible to cage in words.” Still, like any (or every) creation tale, each birth story tries to harness that wild thing, that mystery of love and hope; those collected here compose a valuable addition to that library.