If you’ve read much of my fiction, you’ll know that I have a strong interest in shamanism, both from the anthropological and the practical points of view. So, when a chance came our way to review, and host the author of, a new book on shamanism during her book tour, I jumped at it and talked Silvia into going along. Shamanism may seem like an odd subject for a dark fantasy ‘zine, but it isn’t, really. The first ghost hunters were shamans and the first people to venture deep into caves and other dark places were probably shamans, as well. Horror is perhaps the oldest genre of storytelling there is and the ghost story the oldest narrative. Hence the “campfire tale”.
The Sorcerer’s Dream is not so much about the terrifying aspects of shamanism, or at least, not so much the kind that rip you apart if you don’t master them before dawn, as the more-spiritual aspects of the belief in spirits and dreams. Alysa Braceau is a Dutch journalist who has spent a decade investigating, and writing articles about, New Age practices. The Sorcerer’s Dream is about her apprenticeship with an American shaman named “Vidar”, who teaches her shamanic practices (mainly, lucid dreaming) in the general tradition made famous by (or created by, depending on whom you read) Carlos Castaneda. Hence the title, which echoes a famous biography/memoir about Castaneda. The book itself echoes the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice told by Castaneda in his books, with Braceau starting off with vision and dreaming exercises, going to a sweat lodge, encountering the question of using hallucinogens, and meeting her “spirit animal”, all under the guidance of an indigenous teacher.
I have to admit that I am not a fan of the Castaneda tradition. It’s been pretty clear since a now-infamous investigative article on him came out in 1973 that his anthropological research was a fraud and, to be honest, I thought a lot of his “insights” weren’t anything a broad-minded person couldn’t figure out on his/her own with a good book on meditation or guided dreaming. Also, the racism that his narrator character shows toward Don Juan (the narrator’s Yaqui teacher) is intense, patronising and difficult to tolerate. Going with the theory (commonly put forth by Castaneda’s supporters) that Castaneda is really supposed to be Don Juan and not the deliberately-ignorant narrator does not improve the use of the bigotry. Calling him a “trickster” figure doesn’t help, either. And the questions of fraud and cultural misappropriation (including an ongoing debate over whether a term/set of traditions originally identified in Siberia can really be applied beyond Eurasia) have never been satisfactorily answered.
But it’s not necessary to think much of Castaneda in order to appreciate The Sorcerer’s Dream. One of the distinct plusses of the book is that Braceau is not just some naive dabbler who stumbled on shamanism during a quickie retreat. As a journalist on the New Age movement, she comes into the story already plugged into the New Age culture, hip to the various dodges and cons (initially, for example, she dismisses Vidar as a poseur looking to score with the ladies). In fact, some of the scene-setting and anecdotal asides that she puts in, especially early on, are quite interesting. This is someone with a lot of friends in the New Age movement, who regularly interacts with people involved in it. Of further interest to an American audience is that she’s Dutch, so you’re getting the perspective on the movement, and the Castaneda offshoot, from a European non-anglophone.
The discussion of “conscious dreaming” (and how to do it) has some good set-up (like the description of the use of stones as meditation tools), though it tends to get buried in overly-long paragraphs. The book tour’s blurb promises “instructions” on how to conduct conscious dreaming, but I felt the instruction-manual aspect got lost in the apprentice narrative, particularly in the second half of the book, as it often does in this literary tradition.
And the ending is strangely abrupt, with no indices or other endpages. I suppose this was intentional, to show that the apprentice’s journey is ongoing, but it confused me more than anything, and had me looking to see if my review copy had been somehow left incomplete.
You can also enjoy the book as pure story, the tale of a young woman learning about shamanism (by practicing an apprenticeship with a shaman) in a New Age context, a tradition few women have had access to until recently. The double role of telling a good yarn and telling the reader how to make a good yarn of his/her own is also part of this literary tradition. Joseph Campbell would have been proud.
Braceau, Alysa (Dreamshield). The Sorcerer’s Dream: Dreaming and Spiritual Adventure in a New Millennium. Booklocker.com, Inc. (April 12, 2010). 294 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1609101565.