“The Story of the Andes Survivors”
It’s been almost a dozen years since I first read Alive by Piers Paul Read, a book that I still to this day consider one of my all-time favorites. In fact, it’s one of the few books I’ve ever re-read and will definitely read again, putting it in a very special league. This intense account of death and survival in the frigid and lifeless Andes mountain range paints such a vivid portrait of human endurance that it’s nearly impossible to put down, though your stomach might be fighting your brain the entire way. With an undercurrent of questionable morality that few human beings have ever experienced, this book takes its readers to places he prays he’d never personally go.
Though the anticipation of survival is one of the most popular themes for us daydreamers and for children of all ages to ponder as we drift off to sleep, few would admit the darker alleys these musings might take. We love to contemplate how we could survive until rescue, were we ever to live through a plane crash, yet more often than not, our dreams take us to deserted islands with fresh water and a bounty of fish, not to the frozen mountaintops of South America where our food resources are slim-to-none.
Several things about this book stood out to me, though I do admittedly, it’s a weird “favorite book” to have. For one thing, this true story of survival lacks all the romanticism of such fictions as The Swiss Family Robinson or Robinson Crusoe (and it has nothing to do with that fact that there are no Uruguayan “Robinsons.”). In Alive, there is no beauty at all. It’s hardcore. It’s raw. It’s a filthy story, yet it’s true-to-life. In telling their story through author Read, the survivors take the human need to survive to the absolute limits–actually they go even beyond those limits. In laying their tale bare for all to see, they force the spectators to ask themselves those most difficult questions: “Could I? Would I?”
Piers Paul Read expertly delivers this story in traditional journalistic fashion. Though each time he leaves the mountain to explore the families’ attempts at rescue, you secretly want him to “wrap it up already,” he leaves few stones un-turned. Despite the journalistic prowess, however, he also uses creative techniques to keep the suspense high. As famed historian Barbara Tuchman once wrote, “A historian who wants to retain any semblance of tension and drama in events as they unfold dare not flash-forward to another, all-seeing point of view… Rather, a good historian re-creates for the reader the conditions of the history being described, conveying a sense that ‘you were there.'” (Barbara Tuchman as quoted by Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 24) Piers Paul Read excels at this point, making this book a drama for the ages. After all, the very title suggests that some remain alive, yet we don’t know who, we ostensibly don’t know how, and we certainly don’t know how they’re ever make it back to civilization. Incidentally, the “walk out” chapters are quite possibly the most exciting passages I’ve ever read, though you need the run-up of the entire beginning to understand why.
Yet another look at this tragic triumph, Miracle in the Andes written by survivor Nando Parrado, approaches the story in a far more personal manner than does Read in Alive. I highly recommend that readers devour both this well-researched and that well-recalled, for in the sum of the two, you can almost feel as though you lived through the horrible ordeal yourself and came out alive.