Book Review: Alive

Alive by Piers Paul Read

Alive

The blurb from the inside cover:

Their plane crashed high in the Andes. Their only shelter was the plane’s shattered fuselage, their only supplies a little wine and some bits of candy. In the beginning, there were thirty-two survivors. Then, only twenty-seven; then, nineteen . . . and, in the end, sixteen. This is their story–the greatest modern epic of catastrophe and human endurance.

A few years ago, I found this at a used book store and I bought it out of sheer morbid curiosity. I saw the movie based on this book when I was young, but the only elements I remembered were the cannibalism and that Ethan Hawke’s character was kind of a pushy jerk. 

This is the story of forty-five people, most of whom were rugby players, on a chartered plane flying from Uruguay to Chile on Friday the 13th of October, 1972. Know what’s between Uruguay and Chile? The Andes. The plane, called the Fairchild, flew off course in a storm. Its right wing clipped a mountain, and the Fairchild crashed.

The boys were not dressed for especially cold weather and there were no real food supplies with them. The radio in the plane had been destroyed, but they had a small transistor radio that managed to pick up the news. After ten days, they learned that the search for them had been called off. Facing starvation, they made a choice to eat the food that was available to them.

But, that’s not really the whole story. If cannibalism is the only aspect of this tragic tale that interests you, you might as well just watch the craptastic movie, and you should check out the only slightly better Ravenous while you’re at it. Or if you really feel like sitting through a truly terrible movie about cannibalism, check out Bone Tomahawk.

This book was written with the cooperation of the sixteen survivors. The media in the 1970s was no better than the media is today, and reporters had a field day when these boys were recovered more than seventy days after their plane crashed. Wild stories and accusations were thrown around in the media with no respect for the living or the dead. And so the survivors put this book forward as a way to tell their side of the story. There is a note from Mr. Read at the beginning of the book that indicates not all of the survivors are pleased with his book. You can’t please everyone all of the time, though.

Having read this, I can honestly say those boys didn’t do anything wrong or malicious, certainly nothing that any of them should be ashamed of. They were in an extreme situation. And I believe that were they not healthy young rugby players who were used to working together as a team, none of them would have survived. The things they did in order to survive their injuries, starvation, avalanches, sunburns and sun-blindness, and finally managing to rescue themselves from the mountain, were all carefully considered and planned. These were thoughtful young men with a stubbornness that kept them alive. And the man Ethan Hawke’s character is based on? Absolutely not a pushy jerk.

There is also a great deal of information in the book regarding the relentless searching the parents did. Many of them were convinced their boys were still alive and followed every lead, no matter how dubious (yes, they even talked to psychics). And I was struck by how much the people and governments of Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile all worked together to help search for the crashed plane. Borders don’t mean anything when it comes to a parent searching for a lost child, do they?

This book does not have any sensationalism or scandal. It is a fair account with objective insights into each of the boys’ characters, both in the high times and the low. If you’re one that enjoys tales of survival, near-death experiences, triumphs of the human spirit, etc., give this book a try. It’s written well and is an enjoyable, intense read.

And if I may suggest…

Touching the Void

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson (also a brilliant film) is the autobiographical tale of two men climbing Siula Grande in the Andes. They become separated and each assumes the other died. Alone and injured, they both survived to tell the tale. And if I ever meet Joe Simpson, I’m going to hug him tight.

And of course there’s…

Endurance

The Endurance by Caroline Alexander, or really any book about Ernest Shackleton’s trip to the South Pole. To date this is the only book I’ve read of that expedition, and oh boy! It will make you feel wimpy and cold.

And that might be why I read about these heroic adventures. I don’t think I would have survived in any of these situations, and these heroes motivate me to try to become stronger.

And to not go south.