Mar 18

Book Review: Alive

Alive: The Story of the Andes SurvivorsAlive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read

The success of this book relates mostly to the compelling nature of the tragedy that spawned it. Even before reading this book, I’d heard the story of these Urugayans who crashed into the Andes back in 1972. It seemed like the perfect book to read on a long flight home.

I’ve read a lot of books about disasters, so I came to this with a more critical eye than the average reader. Read focuses almost entirely upon the actions taken by the survivors after they landed. He leaves the cause of their crash fairly vague. Did they not have black boxes back then? Was it never recovered? Did he assume we had no interest in that? For whatever reason, the cause of the accident is mentioned only cursorily.

Once they crashed, the story began to cover the survivors and how they dealt with the horror of their situation. Were they going to be rescued, or should they try to hike to safety? Who was in charge, and how did they deal with the injured? How did they protect themselves from the elements. And, of course, the most gruesome aspect, what did they eat?

From a research standpoint, Read does a good job. He covers both what happened on the cordillera as well as what was happening among the rescuers. He lavishes details about their background, and how it impacted the decisions they made. He even provides back story as to who among the passengers had suffered, and who had a reputation as a playboy, and who did not even belong to the same team as the others. Every survivor or victim of this crash receives his or her due.

As with many non-fiction books, this attention to detail was its weakness. There were simply too many characters for me to keep track of their names. I can understand that, out of respect for the survivors, it didn’t make sense to edit out the names or stories of anyone. However, from a narrative standpoint, it would have made more sense to chose five to seven “main characters” and focus almost entirely on them. As it was, the litany of names and backgrounds of victims overwhelmed me, and after a while I simply gave up trying to tell one from another. It didn’t help that the names were all foreign to me, and many of them had nicknames as well.

Those with a ghoulish bent will appreciate the detail with which Read describes how the survivors butchered and ate the dead. Those who just want a gripping tale of survival under brutal conditions might instead try THE LONG WALK or ENDURANCE: SHACKLETON’S INCREDIBLE VOYAGE.

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