Search This Blog

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Snakebite Survivors' Club

"The image of the overflowing snake-pit had since left me, but a more particular, more threatening vision had taken its place: a single snake seething at my feet, a wave of chevrons and diamonds breaking yellow and brown, then the instant of sharpness and blood nudging scarlet from the puncture marks... the snakebite sequence began as a recurring dream.. and... I began to believe that I was going to die of snakebite."

It is doubtful that any group of animals holds the collective sway over the human psyche as much as the snakes.  In human societies around the world and throughout history, snakes have been worshiped or feared, killed on sight in some societies and venerated and adored in others... sometimes within the same culture.

Even the smallest snake can have an enormous impact on people - at one zoo where I worked, I saw an adult woman sprint away from me as fast as possible, running smack into a wall in her effort to escape the two-foot rosy boa I was holding... fifty feet away from her.  The bigger snakes - the pythons, the anacondas - have a proportionally even larger impact on us.  So do the venomous species.

Author Jeremy Seal is terrified of snakes.  All snakes, really, but he holds a special spot of horror in his heart for the world's deadliest species, the thanaopidia, and snakebite is a source of constant terror to him.  In an effort to conquer this fear, he sets off on a mission through geography and history, traveling five continents in search of people of who survived the bites of four of the world's most feared snakes.  In India, he encounters snake charmers and their cobra costars.  In Australia, he meets one of the lucky few people on earth to have survived the bite of the taipan.  In East Africa, he meets a reptile wrangler who survived a bite from a black mamba.  And perhaps most bizarrely of all, in the good ol' US of A, he introduces us to a woman who's crazed backwoods preacher of a husband tried to murder her with the rattlesnakes that he handled as part of his sermons.

These lucky folks (as far as anyone who gets bitten by a taipan or a black mamba is really "lucky") form his titular Snakebite Survivors' Club: Travels Among Serpents.

I enjoyed Seal's book a fair bit, but there are two caveats I'd offer any reader.  The first goes out to the folks who are especially interested in snakes - don't get your hopes up.  The snakes themselves don't appear too much throughout the book.  Instead, you'll get a lot of history lessons and a lot of biographical back-stories building up to the fateful meetings.  Secondly, the book jumps around a lot from chapter to chapter, continent to continent.  One minute you're getting a history of colonial Australia, the next page your on the other side of the world with a totally different set of characters, and then back again.  I eventually got frustrated to the point where I went through and read all of the African chapters first, then all the Indian, and so on.

So Seal's book is a lot more about people than it is snakes.  It makes sense.  For the most part, the people in this book don't get bitten by snakes by complete accident - they are bitten because they (or, in the case of the preacher's wife, someone else) get themselves bitten. For a man who has acknowledged ophidiophobia, Seal does a wonderful job of not biasing his readers against snakes, nor does he succumb to sensationlisism and fear-mongering (I've spent some time in East Africa, and if one tenth of the stories I heard people say about black mambas were true, there wouldn't be a soul left in all of Africa).

Instead, Jeremy Seal's Snakebite Survivors' Club offers an intimate view of people, snakes, and what happens when they meet in the worst of possible ways.

No comments:

Post a Comment