Two men, from two of America's pre-eminent families — the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts — are at the center of two new books set in exotic locales, one a novel, the other nonfiction.
In "Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art," Carl Hoffman travels to New Guinea to settle once and for all whether Nelson Rockefeller's son Michael was killed by cannibals in the early 1960s. In "Roosevelt's Beast," thriller writer Louis Bayard conjures a supernatural-laced tale based on Teddy Roosevelt's death-defying expedition into the Amazon in 1914.
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Michael Rockefeller was 23 years old when he eased his way into the warm waters off the coast of Dutch New Guinea, gasoline cans tied to his belt to keep him afloat. He and anthropologist René Wassing had been stranded for more than a day atop their overturned boat when Rockefeller decided he would swim what he guessed was 5 to 10 miles to shore. "I think I can make it," he told Wassing. The son of Nelson Rockefeller was never seen again.
That was Nov. 21, 1961, and despite massive search efforts, Rockefeller's body was never found. The official cause of death was drowning, but rumors began swirling shortly after his disappearance that he'd been killed by a warrior tribe that still practiced head hunting and cannibalism.
In "Savage Harvest," a richly detailed travelogue, intrepid traveler Carl Hoffman takes readers to modern-day New Guinea where he hopes to settle once and for all whether the son of one of the world's richest men was indeed killed by tribesmen who consumed his body in a sacred ritual.
Rockefeller had traveled to New Guinea to find and purchase artifacts for the Museum of Primitive Art, opened in 1957 in New York by his father. Many of the pieces he collected on that trip, before his disappearance, were considered sacred by the native artists who produced them. Sacred because they were linked to their belief in the spirit world and that they could achieve balance with that world through eating human flesh.
The Rockefeller family never publicly discussed the possibility that Michael's death was anything but a drowning, but Hoffman's research turned up hundreds of never-before-made-public documents that indicate a very different scenario.
It takes nothing away from the reading of this nail-biting exposé to say that he unearthed evidence that government and church agencies covered up what they knew about Rockefeller's disappearance. Hoffman proves they hid what they knew believing that the truth wouldn't benefit anyone. To understand their motivations, Hoffman says, we need only look to contemporary scandals such as the wall of secrecy Penn State built around convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky. Then and now, Hoffman writes, institutions believed it was "Better to say nothing."
Hoffman, an award-winning journalist, lived with New Guinea's Asmat tribes for four months in 2012, studying their language and culture, building relationships with tribesmen and gaining their trust with the hope that they could offer some evidence about Rockefeller's fate. "Savage Harvest" fascinates for the mystery it aims to solve as well as its portrait of an isolated but changing way of life.
In the villages he visited, Hoffman writes, it's most likely that everyone older than 40 has eaten human flesh. He writes honestly and clinically about the practice: how the Asmats had "not eaten it like we eat steak today — purchased in some air-conditioned megastore all wrapped in plastic — but with active participation in the butchering of bodies, the cutting off of heads, the evisceration of the skulls and chests and bowels of men, women, and children."
Hoffman offers an objective but always scintillating investigation into a people and their customs, but he never sensationalizes. Instead, he offers a cultural perspective, however shocking, that attempts to explain how and why Rockefeller died and what prodded the Asmat to kill "out of passion and love, love for what they had lost and were losing … their culture and traditions, headhunting — as modernity and Christianity closed in from every direction."
In 1914 Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit joined an expedition along an uncharted tributary of the Amazon known as Rio da Dúvida, the River of Doubt. The expedition marks its 100th anniversary this year, and novelist Louis Bayard is celebrating with a historical reboot. His latest thriller, "Roosevelt's Beast," doses the death-defying jungle journey with a supernatural jolt.
In this marvelously imagined novel, as in real life, the Roosevelts, accompanied by legendary Brazilian adventurer Candido Rondon and a legion of porters, were challenged at every turn. They ran out of food, suffered debilitating exhaustion, fought malaria and battled to stay afloat in the river's raging rapids.
The trip offered a myriad of ways for the Roosevelts to succumb to death, including encounters with native peoples who, threatened by the presence of foreigners, easily could have accosted them.
That didn't happen, but Bayard imagines it did. The Roosevelts are kidnapped by Cinta Larga tribesmen who offer them a way to buy their freedom: kill the beast that's been attacking people and animals with unparalleled savagery. "Not just eaten, these creatures, but disemboweled — emptied — with only the head left to testify to what they had been," writes Bayard. He then amps up the terror by allowing us to hear, but not see, the beast finishing off a jungle cat: "The jaguar's terrible howls; the quiet; and lastly the soft, obscene sound of lapping."
In all this darkness and foreboding, Bayard enchants us with the Roosevelts much as he put us in Edgar Allan Poe's thrall in "The Pale Blue Eye." Teddy, weakened by malaria, approaches the hunt for the beast with gusto, likening it to the yearlong African safari in which he and his party are said to have killed more than 500 animals. But hunting this mysterious creature won't be anything like bagging a rhino in Africa.
Kermit is always standing in the shadow of his great father. He's brooding, taciturn and more complex. Bayard uses Kermit as a vehicle for the book's supernatural plot threads. Are the visions he has experienced since childhood delusions or something otherworldly?
Leavening the intensity of the Roosevelts' mission to find the beast is their relationship with Luz, the daughter of a missionary who lives with the Cinta Larga, and her charming young son Thiago. Bayard counterbalances the novel's noir core with joyous comedic scenes such as the one in which this determined quartet of hunters frolics in the Amazonian forest while Kermit rowdily recites Rudyard Kipling's "Gunga Din."
Almost as harrowing as the monster (which no one has ever seen and which leaves no tracks) is the beastliness of Mother Nature. By the time Kermit is bitten by a deadly viper, he has already been attacked by vampire bats and a crazed howler monkey. Bayard describes a colorful world that's scary yet beautiful, filled with "golden allamanda" and "scarlet tacsonia," and lest we start feeling too comfortable, "black, seething water" and the remnants of one of the beast's victims, now a "squall of black, bubbling with flies and ants."
The truth is, we like to be scared. We're happy to step through any portal that surrounds us with inexplicable terror, particularly when it's set in the natural world. It's why millions of us happily shivered during J.J. Abrams' "Lost," and why we loved the way we cringed and squirmed while reading Scott Smith's "The Ruins."
In the end, "Roosevelt's Beast" reminds us what some of the novel's characters will learn the hard way: that the monsters we should fear most are deep inside us.
Carol Memmott's reviews have appeared in USA Today, People and the Washington Post.
By Carl Hoffman, William Morrow, 322 pages, $26.99
By Louis Bayard, Henry Holt, 305 pages, $27