Wednesday, September 06, 2000

Book Review: Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors
Piers Paul Read
Adult, Non-Fiction, Documentary
You might like this book if: You enjoy survival stories, situations where group dynamics and working together are important, or you've heard of this story and are curious about what happened.

In 1972, a plane with 45 Uruguayans went down in the Andes. 16 of those original passengers survived. This is their story. And, yes, it pretty much is as dramatic as that movie-trailer style introduction makes it sound.

It is interesting to read a book like this because so much of the story was known to me, but just like Apollo 13, I really enjoyed it anyway, even knowing the outcome and one of the principal sources of tension. Don't get me wrong, it's a grueling read, but I literally couldn't put it down and read it in one sitting. It is a detailed account of what it takes to survive such seemingly impossible conditions: a plane crash in the high mountains,  the difficult weather conditions of late winter/early spring, little food, improper clothing, and no natural resources.

Yet, some did survive, and they did it by dint of faith, determination, incredible creativity and then, of course, being willing to do, as the book cover attests, the unthinkable.  They were careful and thoughtful about their food. They rationed, they worked together, they developed a kind of government that kept people honest and contributing. But they still had too little food to survive, so the grueling decision was made to use the bodies of the dead as food. That story is told in full here, and it is difficult to read and think about, but in this straightforward telling, there is no sensationalizing, so there is nothing that is told for mere shock value. This leaves the reader to ponder the obvious questions of "Would I be able to do that?"and "Should they have just given up and died instead of eating the fallen?"

I also really liked that the author gave nearly as much time to the rescue efforts that were taking place. These parents were relentless in the face of political unrest, developing nations with little resources and skepticism. They would not give up. That was as heroic and meaningful to me as what the boys on the mountain were going through, and the character and faith of the searchers provided some of the best moments of the book for me.

The author met the survivors and he was chosen to write the book, and it appears that he did so with a great deal of personal affection and respect for the survivors. He tells it in true documentary style, as an observer. There is little of editorializing or embellishing and it is left solely up to the reader to form opinions.  I appreciated this approach, because in the end, I was cheering and weeping along with the world of 1973. I was able to focus on the real meaning of the story which to me is the power of faith,  character, friendship and hard work to give regular people the strength to do amazing things. 

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