Back when they were in college, my parents’ idea of a cool Saturday night date was hunting for snakes in the Florida swampland.
Perhaps that’s why I liked Jamie James’s book, The Snake Charmer, so much; its subject, the herpetologist (that would be “professional snake guy” for the non-scientific among us) Joe Slowinski, reminded me a bit of my intrepid dad.
But there are lots of other reasons you should like The Snake Charmer.
In the tradition of retrospective eccentric outdoor adventurer narratives gone awry a la Into the Wild, James identified a compelling story and researched it fully without turning the tale into either an overly sentimental hero’s journey or an overly didactic and boring biography.
The life story of Joe Slowinski, the snake charmer of the title, is told with skill and respect. Right away, the reader learns of Slowinski’s fate after being bitten by the deadly many-banded krait, but the story is no less engaging as the result of this early spoiler.
In an impressive inversion of conventional narrative chronology, James delivers the ending in the beginning and then works his way backwards, developing Slowinski’s character by tracing his life all the way back to his outdoor-loving childhood.
Along the way, the reader becomes endeared of the intelligent yet reckless snake expert, seen through the eyes of friends, family members, colleagues, and even Slowinski’s critics. Though the reader already knows what will happen to Slowinski on his fateful 2001 trek into the high northern territory of Burma/Myanmar, the adrenaline rush of the days leading up to and including the snake bite is no less intense, and the efforts his colleagues undertook to save his life remind the reader how on-the-edge off-the-beaten path expeditions can be and how even the most experienced travelers should take precautions and exercise sound judgment on the road.
James’s story of Slowinski’s life is, finally, so compelling because the author seems, with the help (which he acknowledges) of experts, to have acquired such nuanced knowledge of his subject’s passion—snakes—and the places where Slowinski performed field work.
As much as The Snake Charmer is a fascinating tale of one man’s life and death, it is also an important chronicle that touches upon political issues and raises scientific debates, leaving the reader with lots to think about once the book has been closed.
We’re giving away our hard cover copy of The Snake Charmer!
Want it? Here’s what you need to do:
1) Sign up for a Matador profile if you don’t have one already.
2) Post the URL of your profile in a comment below.
3) In the comment, include one sentence describing why you’d like the book or tell us a good snake story.
We’ll contact the first person who responds and get your address to ship the book your way. And if you’re not the winner of this week’s freebie, check out this “trailer” for the book:
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Photo: Martin and Kathy Dady (creative commons)