Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes is a fascinating work by Daniel L. Everett. For anyone who wonders what life in a primitive Amazon tribe might look and sound like, this book paints a vibrant picture. It would be an excellent pre-trip read for those who desire to travel to the Amazon, whether in a professional capacity seeking to study and understand the cultures represented there, or as a missionary intending to preach Christ to the unconverted. The book will also appeal to the average reader with no intention to travel further than their favorite reading chair. A caution to non-scholars, however. There are one or two places, which I will go into briefly in a later paragraph, which may pose a problem.
Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes certainly embodies a valuable lesson for scholars and missionaries alike. The Amazon is, after all these centuries, a dangerous place, physically, emotionally, and most especially spiritually. As someone who values education, I commend Everett for his dedication to his field of expertise and to his tenacity in incredibly difficult and sometimes life-threatening circumstances. Spiritually, however, Mr. Everett's book leaves me deeply saddened that in the end he chose to return to the world, abandoning his first love.
The book's subject matter is unique and intriguing. Prior to reading Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, I had never heard of the Pirahã tribe. Unlike the author, however, I did not come away feeling enamored of them. Quite the opposite. I was shocked and deeply discouraged by what I learned of their culture. The lack of supervision given a very young child, who sat playing with a large sharp knife while the adults sat nearby, oblivious to the danger the child had placed itself in, appalled me. I also recall the story of another child falling into the coals of a fire, burning its leg and butt, "howling with pain," as the author said. What did the mother do? She "jerked him up by one arm and scolded him." Most appalling of all, the story of the young mother dying in childbirth a short distance from the village. Though everyone within the village heard her screams for help, no one went to her aid because the Pirahã believe one must face life's challenges on their own, come what may. The infant born to that woman lived a few days, thanks to the efforts of the author and his wife to save it. When left under the supervision of its own father and other Pirahã men in the village, it died - not because of its initial trials, but because the Pirahã men forced liquor down its throat, thoroughly convinced they were sparing it an inevitable lingering death. After reading Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, I harbor no misguided sense of romanticism for the native Pirahã culture as the author apparently does.
The conflict Everett faced with respect to his professional responsibilities, his missionary commitment, and his efforts to protect himself and his family from ignorance of the Pirahã tribesmen and threats from those outside the tribe, is particularly engaging. Certainly Everett must be given credit for staying his ground, initially, rightfully, trusting in God for the outcome. He stayed when others might have packed and left, never to return.
Third, Everett's book embodies a caution to all Christians. I would recommend they read the book before journeying into the mission fields in the Amazon or any other country. Guard your souls well. While most missionaries are sent to preach and teach about Christ, Everett states clearly that it was not the mission of SIL, the organization under whose auspices he initially worked. His mission was to learn the Pirahã language in order to translate the Bible for them that the Pirahã would have it to learn from and through it come to faith. Unfortunately, he learned too late that the Pirahã had already made up their minds about this Jesus, whom others had tried to teach them about, and they had decided to reject Him. Had Everett known of their determination not to accept Christ, he might have well chosen to cast his pearls elsewhere and thus save himself and keep his family whole. Repeated exposure to the culture, however, had unpleasant results for the author himself. In the end, he chose the Pirahã values, the Pirahã perspective on life, and a faithless existence for himself. A sad end to a noble beginning. As I read the conclusion of his book, two scriptures returned to mind over and again. The first is from Galatians 4:9:
But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? And then also Luke 9:62:
And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. Everett lost something very precious in the Amazonian jungle. In some small way, I found myself grieving for him.
I did not lower the rating of the book because of these things, however. I gave only four stars because I found myself, as an average reader, struggling with the technical aspects of Everett's work. At the beginning, I had great difficulty in trying to pronounce some of the Pirahã names and common words. Finally, I stopped trying. As I read through the pages, I skipped over them all together, which sometimes left sentences feeling choppy, incomplete, and difficult to understand. In Part Two, where the author goes into much more detail about the language, I struggled hardest of all. Linguists, no doubt, will find this area more understandable and navigable. Non-linguists, however, will experience the sensation of sloshing through a heavy bog, working harder and harder to reach the other side. I felt that the greater portion of Part Two, with respect to its theories and details, would be more suited to a technical manuscript or a course text.
Overall, I certainly recommend Mr. Everett's book. Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes is, indeed, a learning experience in itself.