Review: Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, Daniel Everett

Recommended by Annie the Superfast Reader.  Don’t Sleep There are Snakes chronicles missionary/anthropologist Daniel Everett’s time with the Pirahã tribe in Brazil.  As a young linguist, Everett moved to Brazil with his family to learn the Pirahã language and translate the Bible into Pirahã, thus to spread the Good News of the Lord.  In learning the language and spending time with the tribe, he found that the Pirahã are so focused on immediacy of experience that they were completely uninterested in the Bible.  They shook his faith.

Going in, I thought this was going to be a personal memoir about Everett’s faith and how it changed as a result of living with thePirahã.  Instead it was far more focused on his learning of the Pirahã language and coming to understand their culture.  Though the writing was far from inspired, his observations of the Pirahã were interesting enough in themselves to be worth reading about.  For instance, they are highly conservative and resistant to outside influences on their culture.  They express a wish to be able to make sturdier canoes, so Everett arranges to bring someone in to show them how to make sturdier canoes.  They make a sample canoe under the instruction of the canoe guy.  They love it!  It is great!  A few days later they ask for another canoe, and when Everett says they know how to make them now, they say “Pirahã don’t make canoes,” and drop it.  Crazy, eh?  Anthropology is insane.

The last third or so of the book is focused primarily on the Pirahã language.  I am curious about linguistics! – but I don’t know enough about it (yet) that I understood all the parts of how the Pirahã language differs from other languages.  If I were wiser, or had taken linguistics classes in college, I might have understood all this better.  I wish I’d taken linguistics in college.  Why did I not do that?

Right at the very end, Everett talks briefly about his attempts to teach the Pirahã about the Christian faith.  They didn’t care about Jesus, because nobody they knew had actually spoken to him, and the Pirahã are all about lived experience.  I wanted to know how all this caused Everett’s faith to change, and in what ways – because I like to know what and why people believe – but he didn’t really go into it.  Alas!

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14 thoughts on “Review: Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, Daniel Everett

    • I liked that anecdote because it seems familiar to me from my own life. I know that sometimes I get an idea that I can’t do something, and I stick to it even though I might find out different if I really tried. Like football – I used to think because I don’t PLAY sports that I wouldn’t enjoy WATCHING them either, and I turned up my nose at football for years before discovering I absolutely LOVE watching football. People aren’t that different. 🙂

  1. I don’t know which part of this review interested me more – the anthropology of the Piraha, or the more subtle anthropology of a type of person who COULD have so much new religious insight – if he were able to think deeply and critically enough. It isn’t just the Piraha who can’t learn to make a new canoe, is it?

    • I think it’s interesting that his faith changed but his wife’s didn’t. She had been a missionary in Africa or someplace when she was a kid – I wonder if that’s what made the difference. A history from her childhood of shutting out the things that might make her change her faith.

  2. It sounds really interesting- kind of reminds me of Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible when I read your review. Although this is true life, so I’m sure much more fascinating!

    • Well, The Poisonwood Bible is far better written, and there’s a lot more in it about the conflict between the Price family’s beliefs and the beliefs of the Kilanga, than there is about the conflict in beliefs between the Everetts and the Piraha. Which makes Poisonwood Bible better for me because I love the exploration of that clash. But the Everett book explores the Piraha culture more thoroughly.

  3. “Pirahã don’t make canoes.” Wow, I love that arrogance. It seems like there would be a lot of comic potential in the two confident purveyors of absolutes–one cultural, one religious–coming to loggerheads. Maybe the guy should have written a novel.

    • I’m not sure he’s a good enough writer to write a novel – what a mean thing to say! But it’s true. If only someone else could write his novel for him. 😛

  4. My husband read this and quite liked it, but found it a bit linguistic-y for his tastes. However, he told me all about the beginning section, when the guy takes his family out to the amazon and they all get sick and he’s so busy with his project that they all nearly die before he gets help. He sounded a little bonkers, to be honest, and that rather put me off reading it. Call me old-fashioned, but I do like parents to look out for their children, unless the point of the book is that they fail to do so.

    • I HATED that part! His wife and daughter had been running fevers of 103 for something like five days before he started getting them help. At that point in the book, I thought it was going to be all about him and I wasn’t going to like it – but it got better when he stopped talking so much about himself personally and his own experiences. I couldn’t fathom how he could keep his children living in that place even after that experience, and the time that the Piraha tried to kill them all.

  5. Oh, it was THAT book, about the guy whose family got so sick! Litlove, I am totally in your corner about witless parents…I decided I wouldn’t like the book for the very same reason.

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