BY: DANIELLE CARSON
“Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down.” Ethnography within a travelogue within a tutorial, “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” is a nonfiction book that reads like novel. In fact, I’ve learned more from this highly enjoyable book than I have from most textbooks that I was always reluctant to read.
The book tells the story of a sliver of the rich pie that is rainforest-trekking ethnobotanist Mark J. Plotkin’s life. The novel covers the course of a decade during which Plotkin shadows some of the most powerful Shamans in multiple regions of the Amazon and learning about the rich flora that could harness the power to cure diseases that American pharmaceutics insists are incurable.
Plotkin’s rapid quest for knowledge is up against the even faster deterioration of the traditional knowledge along with rainforest and its botanical gems.
Following a captivating anecdote at the beginning of the book, Plotkin writes, “Few people can recall the particular moment when they decided how to spend the rest of their lives.”
Throughout the rest of the novel, it is crystal clear that Plotkin is writing directly from the heart about his passion for ethnic medicine and the pursuit of Shamanic healing.
It is also extremely informational—he describes day in and day out in such great detail that the scene materializes on the pages. The book is incredibly well-researched; Plotkin quotes countless experts and defines terminology throughout the novel, organizing and reiterating in such a way that the reader need not flip back to recap after becoming glassy-eyed for a few too many paragraphs of dense information. The information relayed in the book is taught through imagery and example; if not practical for common knowledge, you’ll surely learn some interesting, little-known factoids that you can dish out at a party.
More than anything, the book teaches us a lesson about the flawed western medical system. As referenced at the start, “we know little or nothing about the chemical composition of 98.6 [percent] of the Brazilian flora,” and “only about 5,000 of the world’s 25,000 species have been extensively screened in the laboratory to determine therapeutic potential…”. The use of this statistic foreshadows the caliber of the literary and scholarly adventure that lies ahead for the next 300 pages of pure gold.