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The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes Hardcover – October 18, 2011
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Guest Reviewer: Jon Lee Anderson on The Unconquered
In an age when there is little left in the world that can be said to be still "virgin," contemporary travel literature has come to seem increasingly derivative, even farcical. The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes is a rare exception, an original that works on several levels. Scott Wallace has sensitively documented the immensity, history, the terror, and the beauty of one of the world's last true wildernesses and the people who live within it. This is a wonderful book: deeply moving, riveting by turns, laced with finely wrought passages.
On the one hand, The Unconquered is the account of a nightmarish three-month expedition into the Amazon jungle in 2002 led by the irascible Brazilian wilderness explorer Sydney Possuelo, a legendary defender of the region's last uncontacted Indians. Rife through with moments of danger, loneliness, and hunger, as well as the testosterone-fuelled dramas that seem peculiar to groups of men undergoing hard times together, The Unconquered makes a spellbinding tale of real-life high-adventure.
This is also the account of an equally fascinating inward journey taken by its author, the American journalist Scott Wallace, who originally joined Possuelo on his trek in order to write about his journey for National Geographic. In this book, Wallace, who renders memorable portraits of his fellow expeditionaries (the cook, Mauro, haunted by nightmares about monkeys who castrate him; Soldado the backwoods scout, who refuses to return home and see his aging mother) is also brutally honest about himself. Recently divorced, Wallace sets off into the jungle just shy of his forty-eighth birthday; he is out-of-shape, guilt-ridden for not having said goodbye to his three young sons, and fretful about the implications of a prolonged separation with his new girlfriend.
The main character of The Unconquered, however, is Sydney Possuelo, a larger-than-life figure who emerges as a kind of Indian Jones- meets latter-day Bartolome de las Casas. Some years before Wallace met him, Possuelo, Brazil's best-known sertanista, or "agent of contact" with the Amazon's isolated indigenous people, had undergone a crisis of conscience about the destruction wrought by his life's work. He had become instead the main proponent of a no-contact policy for the Amazon's remaining "uncontacted" tribes. He had lobbied for and secured the designation of a vast Maine-sized tract of Amazonian wilderness called the Javari Valley Indigenous Land, to be closed off to all outsiders in perpetuity. It was the refuge of several uncontacted tribes hostile to outsiders, including the implacable flecheiros, the Arrow People, whose territory Possuelo planned to explore.
The motives behind Possuelo's 2002 expedition seemed nonetheless obscure, even contradictory. As Possuelo explained it to Wallace, he wished to gather vital information about the flecheiros and to ascertain their wellbeing, but could only do so by penetrating their sanctuary on foot and by dugout canoe with a band of armed men, while at the same time seeking to avoid contact with them. During the journey itself, the inescapable Catch-22 of Possuelo's logic became more and more apparent until the moment, retold dramatically by Wallace, when the expeditionaries blundered inevitably through a flecheiro settlement, spreading panic as they went.
In the end, The Unconquered is the unforgettable story of a troubled journey through a doomed landscape, its characters—the outsiders and the Indians—locked together in an ever-tightening fatal embrace by their respective needs and compulsions.
At one point in the book, Possuelo points to a path they have slashed out of the jungle with their machetes and tells Wallace: "Five years from now, you will never know we were here." But Wallace is unconvinced, and notes ruefully: "It was doubtful the Arrow People would forget us so easily."
Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. His books include: “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” “The Fall of Baghdad,” and “The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan.” Anderson began his reporting career in 1979, in Peru. In 2009, he won an Overseas Press Club Award for his reporting on Rio de Janeiro’s gangland.
"Wallace's foreboding is matched by his sense of wonder." – New York Times Book Review
"Astonishing." – The London Sunday Times
"A rousing adventure tale." – Wall Street Journal
"Wallace's gripping account takes us upriver to a place very few outsiders have ever seen." – The Boston Globe
"What a great book! An adventure story worthy of Joseph Conrad or Peter Matthiessen." – The Oregonian
“Rousing.” – TIME
"Startlingly novelistic." – Salon.com
“It’s easy to picture The Unconquered being made into a movie.” – Washington Post Express
"Masterful...positively cinematic." – Yale Alumni Magazine
“An eye-opening read…one of the most gripping pieces of non-fiction around…. You’ll swear you are reading a thriller novel.” – Guernica
“Dream assignment or nightmare? An editor from National Geographic asked journalist Scott Wallace to join an expedition into the deepest wilds of the Amazon jungle to find the mysterious ‘People of the Arrow.' While the experience was pretty much a nightmare, it’s a blessing for readers of Wallace's fascinating book.” — Associated Press
“Echoing Amazonia’s earliest European explorers, Wallace crafts a tale that is part gripping adventure story, part window into the unexpected complexities of a developing country where uncontacted tribes stand between a resource-hungry economy and an area abounding in natural wealth.” – Indian Country Today
“Rife with poachers, drug smugglers, illegal gold miners and violent tribes already acquainted with the dangers of modern life…Wallace describes the trek in vivid, if unsettling, terms.” – Maclean’s
“Wallace joins the tribe of jungle-besotted literary types led by Redmond O'Hanlon and David Grann and presents a credibly incredible tale about his voyage past the edge of modernity.” – Huffington Post
"A gripping tale of adventure." – Washingtonian
“While it’s hard to imagine that ‘stone-age’ tribes still persist in a world of cell phones, satellites and social media, it’s even harder to understand how difficult it is to police these isolated regions, to keep them free of outsiders who could endanger a way of life that has nearly disappeared…Wallace’s narrative is apt and penetrating.” – SEJournal
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Top Customer Reviews
The team, led by Possuelo, contained 34 men, including Indians of the three tribes neighboring the Flecheiros and Brazilian frontiersmen. The Flecheiros' territory is a very remote area of Brazil, with no roads, only rivers and jungle. The explorers took motorboats as far as they could, then trekked through the jungle, covering 250 miles. They carried all their equipment through the jungle, some men with as much as 100 pounds on their backs, making trails with machetes.
The isolation in the jungle was complete; the sky disappeared. If Wallace lost sight of the person before him, he immediately became lost. The dense canopy rendered useless the GPS, a two-way radio and the satellite phone. The explorers had no recourse in case of serious illness or injury; no medical personnel accompanied them.Read more ›
For me, the Amazon and its tribes are interesting, but not fascinating in themselves topics. When ordering this book, I was hoping for a fast paced book that would give me some education, but more importantly propel me through an engaging adventure. This book does both, but to the extremes. It is definitely an adventure, telling the story of a journalist's guided expedition through the Amazon. However, it is offers near textbook-level discourse on the Amazon, its tribes, history, political issues and so on. And therein lies my issue. If you're someone who savors Amazon history, you'd likely drool over each page. However, if you're more interested in an Indiana Jones-level treatment of the history, while offering a quick adventure, look elsewhere.
As in most areas, enjoyment is often predicated on having the right expectations from the forthcoming experience. I hope my review helps you set the right expectations when deciding whether to buy and how to approach this book.
*The official Brazilian approach, championed by Possuello, was to prevent contact with any of the 20-30 known isolated tribes - some 4,000 Indians - that thrive in the deepest parts of the Amazon. This approach also placed millions of acres out of reach from the logging, fishing, and gold-prospecting industries - and shutting out missionaries and anthropologists. Possuello had a lot of enemies.
*Possuello's primary rationale for the no contact policy was the Indians' extreme vulnerability to contagious disease. Like the North American and South American Indians during the times of Columbus and other explorers, the indigenous populations simply had no resistance to the germs whites carried. Other reasons included the inevitable decline if not eradication of every tribe after contact, regardless of whether the contact was friendly or hostile.Read more ›
I'm sorry to say that I would never have had the courage to attempt the expedition that National Geographic author Scott Wallace undertook when he joined Sydney Possuelo's attempt to find and protect, but not meet, "the last uncontacted tribes" of the Amazon. The hardships and dangers are almost unimaginable to me. And to the degree that I can imagine them, that is where I want them to stay - in my mind only.
The Amazon basin is fascinating to me, perhaps because it is so different from my part of the world. Mr. Wallace did a great job of showing me the isolation of the country, the vulnerability of its inhabitants, both native and non-native, animal and human. Mr. Possuelo, an outspoken supporter of the indigenous tribes and critic of those who harm them, either intentionally or not, comes across as a bit of a Captain Queeg but even so, was not able to control the actions of some of his employees. Speaking of Possuelo's plans, the author writes "It was a grandiose vision, seeming to require an extraordinary combination of altruistic impulse and an ego of Amazonian proportions."
The author speaks of a caiman's "malicious smile," and while that seems anthropomorphic, I wouldn't blame the caiman if it were malicious. The cruelty to animals, often unnecessary even through the men needed to eat, was horrifying. "He worked his machete like a sushi chef, excising the upper and lower jaws. The mouthless fish continued to flip-flop around the bottom of the boat, as though powered by some demonic force that refused to die.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Okay reading. Glad he was able to live his dream. A bit tedious and slow.Published 16 days ago by anyaisabela
Very interesting book. Not my normal reading material, but I'm glad I bought it, great story and adventure.Published 20 days ago by CeMor
A sobering case that uncontacted tribes are not the savages we might assume them to be. vivid narrative. Could not put this book down.Published 1 month ago by Dale
What a spectacular adventure! And so well-told. Scott Wallace's book was so compelling, I lost sleep over it. I thought about it during the day. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Wendy Keller
National Geographic Magazine has been around for many years and has many readers. I am actually not one of them.
The book is OK, three stars. Read more
I am hopeful that governments and local people of the Amazon will continue to repair the desecration upon the Amazon forests. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Robert Albee