book report: Witch-Doctor’s Apprentice by Nicole Maxwell

I just finished reading “Witch-Doctor’s Apprentice: Hunting for Medicinal Plants in the Amazon” by Nicole Maxwell, introduction by Terrence McKenna. I saw it at Half Price Books in Austin a few months ago when I was shopping for “The Wild Life of Our Bodies” (about which more later) and couldn’t very well NOT buy it. Jeez.

First off, she’s a really fun writer. She’s a medicine hunter, making repeated trips to the Amazon I believe in the 1950’s and 60’s. This book is her memoir of her adventures. I thoroughly enjoyed the way she says what she says. As I’ve been studying German, I’ve really been coming to appreciate what a playful language English can be, and she definitely likes to play. She’s had incredible experiences and I guess you’d have to have a sly sense of humor to not just endure but thrive in such circumstances. It’s one of those books that’s just plain fun to read, so there’s that.

I keep waiting, though, for some mention of the witch-doctor’s apprentice. I know that publishers make up titles and design bookcovers and she may have fought hard against the name. Who knows? I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. I certainly bought the book because I had judged it by its cover. I thought at some point there would be someone who was an apprentice. I probably would not have purchased a book called “White Lady Mucks around in the Jungle.” It’s true. Oh well, in this case I’m glad I got tricked.

I learned more than I expected about everyday life in the Amazon, just stuff like bugs and rain and food. The basics. She’s engaging enough that I have a sort of hyper-real impression of what it’s like to ride on a river boat that’s carrying a ornery pig and an ever-increasing number of barrels of rubber sap, for example. She had so much contact with so many different native tribes that she’s able to give some fairly fine-grained and subtle information about social interactions. I’m interested in the topic of how various cultures demonstrate and reciprocate respect, and there’s plenty to feed that interest in these pages. And she has that light-hearted bemusement that comes from real familiarity. She likes some groups more than others, some individuals more than others, her interactions have the texture of human to human connection. There are times when I strongly disapproved of her trickery in getting information out of people, although I did think her motives were sincere, if naive. Part of the appeal of the book, though, is that she is a very real, flawed person. She makes mistakes, gets overtired, acts like a jerk, loses track of her priorities. You know, like a person does.

Anyway, as far as information on medicinal plants, like tangible, usable information, there’s only just enough that I plan to keep the book. Just barely, though. Mostly she gets obsessed with some birth control and fertility promoting herbs. Not my bag. What’s more, she’s a terrible botanist. It turns out at the end that several of the plants she’s collected are varieties of the same species. Because of this, she assumes they have similar properties and that the distinctions she’s been taught are cultural. I wanted to yell into the book “Bell pepper and cayenne are the same species! Do they have the same properties in your mouth?”

All in all, a fun read in the herbal entertainment genre. Nothing groundbreaking.

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