I just saw a preview for the movie version of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. (And by the way, when did the word “trailer” creep into common usage, replacing the unpretentious and much more accurate “preview”?) Seeing a clip from the movie –which included a glimpse of the deadly white whale — reminded me how much I enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick’s enthralling account of the survivors of the sinking of the Essex. (It won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000.) I’ve had a strange fascination with survival stories, especially those that take place at sea, ever since childhood.
I grew up near the ocean, and spent most of my summers on boats. I remember lying in my cozy bunk at night, reading Survive the Savage Sea (originally published in 1973, and still in print) by the light of a little battery-powered lamp. Dougal Robertson’s book describes how his boat was sunk by a pod of killer whales, and how his family managed to survive for 38 days in a little dinghy with few provisions. As I recall, they had little more than a bag of onions and some fruit. I felt a little guilty when I complained about the stale cereal and canned vegetables we ate on our boat.
When I ran out of tales of shipwrecked sailors, I turned to adventure on land. Alive, by Piers Paul Read, was shocking and gruesome– so it was right up my 14-year-old alley. I don’t think my tastes have evolved much, because I continue to be intrigued by true stories of bravery in the face of danger. The best one I’ve read recently is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides. Sides, a journalist and historian, has written several other excellent works of nonfiction; I especially liked Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, about a daring raid on a POW camp in the Philippines.
Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of an historical event. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, takes place at the other end of the world. The book (originally published in 1959) was just re-issued in honor of the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s amazing expedition. It’s deservedly a classic. And it’s more uplifting than many survival stories; Shackleton’s entire crew survived their ordeal.
Several members of Teddy Roosevelt’s party in The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard, were not so lucky. After he lost the presidential election in 1912, Roosevelt planned an expedition to explore the River of Doubt, a previously unmapped tributary of the Amazon. I recommend this book over and over — it’s on its way to becoming a classic in adventure literature.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, has to be one of the most moving stories of survival ever written. All I can say is that if you haven’t read it, you should. I also think it should be required reading for all high school students. Especially the ones who think they’re deprived if they don’t have the latest iPhone.
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, by Mitchell Zuckerman, is unusual in that one of the heroic survivors is a woman. A plane is shot down over the cannibal-infested jungles of New Guinea, with only three survivors, all of whom are injured. This book didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was published, but it’s one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read.
Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Heretic Who Led History’s Greatest Mutiny, by Mike Dash, has it all: shipwreck . . . mutiny . . . murder . . . and survival. When a Dutch ship sinks off the coast of Australia, the survivors take refuge on a desert island — where they are at the mercy of a fanatical band of mutineers. It’s another “truth is stranger than fiction” story that reads like a thriller.
Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, by Héctor Tobar, probably shouldn’t be listed as one of my favorites — because I haven’t read it yet. But I have heard so many glowing reviews from trusted sources that I am pretty sure I am going to love it. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times reviewer has to say:
The miners’ journey into the underworld and their miraculous return is an epic tale for all time. In his new book, Deep Down Dark, journalist and former Times staffer Héctor Tobar proves equal to the occasion. Weaving together the drama of the miners’ harrowing ordeal below ground with the anguish of families and rescuers on the surface, Tobar delivers a masterful account of exile and human longing, of triumph in the face of all odds. Taut with suspense and moments of tenderness and replete with a cast of unforgettable characters, Deep Down Dark ranks with the best of adventure literature.
What determines whether a person survives an ordeal? Obviously, luck is the most important factor — but, as all these books show us, some people possess an indomitable spirit. Louis Zamperini, hero of Unbroken, says:
Yet a part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It’s not so strange. Where there’s still life, there’s still hope. What happens is up to God.