Book Review – The Serpent and The Rainbow by Wade Davis

  • The Serpent and The Rainbow – A Harvard Scientist Uncovers The Startling Truth About The Secret World of Haitian Voodoo and Zombis
  • by Wade Davis
  • Publisher – Warner Books
  • Copyright 1985
  • 329 pages

Rating – 5.5/10

Summary – Wade Davis went to Haiti to discover the truth of the zombie phenomenon. The result is the nonfiction book The Serpent and The Rainbow. What’s here is isn’t awful, but it’s a trying read. Too bad Davis (an academic) didn’t work with a wordsmith who could have shaped his material into a book that work better for a general audience.

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Front cover

Review – During the early 1980s, Wade Davis was working on his Ph.D. At Harvard University. He ended up in Haiti working on a mystery that has intrigued people for years. Davis tried to discover whether there was any truth to the stories that zombis (or zombies) existed. If zombies were real, Davis wanted to try to explain the science behind the phenomenon.

Nice Prose Offers Armchair Travel

For an academic, Davis proves to be a surprisingly talented writer with a nice ear for dialogue. Here is a Haitian’s description of Haiti –

“To understand Haiti, you must think of a glass of water. You cannot avoid touching the glass, but it is just a means of support. It is the water that slakes your thirst and it is the water, not the glass, that keeps you alive. In Haiti, the glass consists of the Roman Catholic Church, the government, the national police, the army, the French language, and a set of laws invented in Paris. Yet when you think of it, over ninety percent of the people do not understand, let alone read, French. Roman Catholicism may be the official religion, but as we say the nation is eighty-five percent Catholic and one-hundred-and-ten percent voudoun [voodoo]” (pages 92-93).

I really enjoyed the descriptions of Haitian society. Davis makes Haiti come alive for the reader and explains how Haitian culture evolved to meet the changing needs of its people. (Though, at times, his interpretations are tinged by political correctness).

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Back cover

Academics as Writers – Drawbacks

Unfortunately, after a while The Serpent bogs down and becomes a trying read. Davis  tries to answer the zombi mystery in scientific terms, but also tries to appeal to a general audience. The tensions arising from trying to accomplish both of these goals in one book badly hurt Serpent. Too often, the book drones on, drowning in middling details. Particularly unrewarding are Davis’ long digressions on the (actual or possible) ingredients of every potion.

If there’s a consistent drawback to Serpent, it’s that Davis has little sense of pacing. On both the “ethno” and “botany” sides, he tends to tell you far more about voodoo [or voudoun] than you care to know. As a result, the second half of the book is slow going.

Final Words

In the end, The Serpent and The Rainbow is the sort of book that I’m glad that read, but I cannot recommend it to a general audience. There’s the material for a great book here, but the presentation leaves this potential unrealized.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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