Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes
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I had an English professor in college who told us there were four reasons for reading. Reading for information is self-explanatory, from history to how-to. Reading for the joys of literature – the art of character, plot, language. Distinct from that was reading to escape reality, from romantic time-filler to genre fantasy. The fourth reason was inspiration.
All four reasons kick in reading Daniel L. Everett’s Amazonian memoir, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. Everett goes back thirty years to tell you what happened when he was twenty-six and a gung-ho Christian missionary and linguist who decided to take his brave young family into the Amazon jungle to study a tribe who spoke a language like no other living tongue, to translate a gospel into their language and save their souls.
The happy Piraha people had other ideas. The soul that ended up getting saved was the author’s own.
This compelling, addicting memoir is not only a family survival saga and a study in linguistics, it’s also filled with anthropology, philosophy and pure jungle adventure all rolled into one, the story of one man’s personal conversion from orthodox Western religion to a spiritual celebration of life.
I’ve read the first fifty pages, I’m completely spellbound, and I’m only pausing long enough to write this blog. Right now Daniel’s wife and daughter are both deathly sick with malaria, the poor man is freaking out as they slowly make their way toward medical help in an Amazonian ferryboat moving at six-knots an hour up river, the captain has refused to hurry, they’ve just come to a mysterious stop, and the entire crew has just abandoned the boat all dressed in identical soccer uniforms.
The easy pleasures of a droll, straightforward narrative style and a genuinely likeable husband and father are enhanced even further by a banquet of facts. I had no idea that the Amazonian rain forest is nearly the same size as the continental United States. More than one third of all known species on earth live in the Amazon. This brave family has just stepped into a world “without Western entertainment, without electricity, without doctors, dentists, or telephones,” a world where you shake out your gym shorts in the morning to make sure they don’t contain scorpions or tarantulas.
As for the book’s title, it’s not really a danger warning at all, it’s the idiomatic way the tribe says good-night, the equivalent of “Sweet dreams!”
That’s the single thing I’m most fascinated by – the tribe. They have no words for “I’m sorry” or “thank you.” That in itself intrigues me. The concepts don’t apply to the Piraha people. And so even though the first three reasons for reading are certainly active as I hungrily follow the story, it’s the fourth reason for reading that’s luring me on – I want to know about the ways and beliefs of this tribe that converted a missionary without even trying.
All right, this blog is long enough. Back to my book, where poor Daniel, stranded in an Amazonian ferryboat without a crew, is frantically waiting for a soccer game to end, watching over his delirious wife and daughter…