Picks and Pans Review: The Serpent and the Rainbow

updated 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Wade Davis

Much of the rich flavor in this strange book is like that in the early Carlos Castaneda—a man who becomes obsessed with the inexplicable, especially mind-altering drugs. Only in this nonfiction volume, Davis manages to explain almost everything quite satisfactorily. The author is a Harvard ethnobotanist who goes to Haiti to investigate zombies. He finds that the natives do indeed have a powder made from poisonous fish, toads and deadly plants (the formula is one the witches in Macbeth would love). When rubbed on a victim, it causes him to become ill and lapse into a deathlike coma. But further study reveals that Haitians are governed by secret societies, and that only those who break the code are ever subjected to zombification. In short, the treatment is a socially accepted punishment for a criminal act. The societies also provide food for the hungry, jobs for the jobless and lots of ritual for spiritual uplift. Davis eventually is accepted into a society, observes it in action and tapes the proceedings. He also goes to a waterfall where the mists create the rainbow of the title. A mythical serpent who supposedly lives in the caves below never shows up. A history of Haiti from the African origins of its people through the bloody revolts against the colonial French is included, and Davis' admiration for Haiti's multilayered culture, if not the tyrannical Duvalier family, is clear throughout. (Simon and Schuster, $17.95)

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