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Cannonball Read V: Alive by Piers Paul Read

By Julia | Book Reviews | February 26, 2013 | Comments ()


alivecover.jpg

When I picked up Alive by Piers Paul Read, it had been sitting on my shelf for over a year. My Mom had given it to me, insisting that I would "love it" and that it was a "page-turner." I was skeptical, since it is rare that I find a non-fiction story that is half as epic, fantastical, or engrossing as a story of fiction. Well, this was a lesson in listening to my mother, because when I finally started reading Alive and I could not put it down.

On October 13, 1972 a chartered flight carrying an amateur Uruguayan rugby team, the "Old Christians," and many of their friends and family en route to Chile, crashed in the Andes. On December 23, 1972, 72 days after the crash, sixteen survivors were rescued. Alive by Piers Paul Read is the story of their survival.

During the course of two and half months, the victims watch many of their friends die, some from the initial impact, others from their injuries, and some from exposure. They resort to cannibalism to avoid starvation. They face an avalanche that smothers 8 more survivors to death. All the while they search for a means of rescue. Most of the survivors are practically children, 18-20 years old. The chapters alternate between the tale of their survival and their parent's attempts to find them. These parallel chapters mirror each other as testaments to human strength. We learn more about the boys, who are not perfect, but who desperately want to stay alive, to get back to the people they love. We learn about the parents who never give up, who search for their boys even when the Chilean government is convinced they are dead. While Alive is a tragic book, full of so much loss, it is also a comforting book. It's comforting because it's the kind of book that makes you believe in the human race again, that we are capable of kindness, strength, and fortitude in the face of terrible odds.

My criticisms of Alive are very slight. I found that Read has a habit of introducing a person, telling an endearing story about them, and then immediately explaining how they died. Something about that structure seemed a little bit manipulative. It's as if Read is yelling at the reader to, "FEEL EMOTIONS HERE." It often worked, but the emotions felt cheap; he could have spent a bit more time with the people who did not survive the crash. Of course, this would have made their demise more painful for the reader. But their end was tragic, these were real people and their lives deserved a little more depth than what was offered, I would have been fine being a bit more sad. That being said, there were 45 people aboard that plane, and Read could not be expected to tell the story of each of their lives. The information gathering process would have been daunting, since those that perished were not around to tell their own stories, and there was a limited time to put the book together as it was published less than three years after the survivors were rescued.

My remaining criticism takes place towards the end of the book. Read suddenly feels the need to justify that the cannibalism that took place on the mountain broke no spiritual or ethical laws. By my count, he referenced three different Catholic priests that reassured the survivors that what they did was no sin. I don't think anyone could read about their experience and think those boys were sinners, or that they were wrong in what they did. Read's defense of the means they took to stay alive seemed unnecessary. Read had already shown us that what they did was right, there was no need to tell us.

Criticisms aside, Alive is a powerful book. Read reports the facts, and for a story that is so powerful and rich, that is all he really needs to do. How those boys survived 72 days in the Andes, under extreme weather conditions, facing new tragedies every day, is a miracle, and a miracle needs no embellishment. During the course of the book you grow to love the boys who were brave, pity those who were weak, and mourn for those who died. Their survival is never glamorous, but they survive, and by the end of the book that is all you are hoping for.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it , and find more of Julia's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)



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Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not


  • Some Guy

    Seems to me that he was wanting to justify their acts of cannibalism to himself, not necessarily to you or other readers. Though, I also think that perhaps there are plenty of people with not-so-open minds out there who wouldn't/couldn't understand their actions so that he might be forced to continually defend himself. against them.

    You can justify eating your friends to survive all you want through logical terms. I think we all agree to that. But, since we are not completely logical beings, I don't think he could ever justify it to his own conscience.

  • Julia

    The author wasn't one of the survivors, if that's what you mean. But I understand where you're coming from, I get why he wanted to sort of spell it out for us that what they had to do was "okay," I just didn't think it was completely necessary since he had already done this earlier in the book. That was my take.

  • MikeRoorda

    Oh holy hell this is a good book. I remember reading this in my younger years and being riveted by the story and the details behind how the survivors made it through. (If I'm remembering correctly, they not only were forced to resort to cannibalism but also had to use skin to fashion clothing in order to be able to withstand the subzero temps.)

    It was incredible to me that so much could happen to them, and that they continued to fight regardless of the odds or how many times the survivors of the initial crash were further culled either by exposure or further tragedy. (The avalanche was particularly hard for me to handle.)

    I hadn't remembered the awkward ending until you brought it up, but I definitely remember agreeing the the inclusion of the priest's absolution and the continual moral reassurance was unnecessary. I understand that psychologically that's where the boys were at mentally when they got home, but explaining it wasn't needed.

  • Julia

    And you're right about them having to use human skin, they mostly used it to fashion shoes so that they could walk on the snow. I just can't imagine what they went through.

  • Julia

    I know! It's a great one. Definitely devastating to read, but there's so much good in it. I'm glad you had the same reaction to the awkward ending, and it wasn't just me imagining it.

  • ,

    IIRC some of them DID give up the fight, around the time when they had to make the decision whether to eat the dead or not. I'm thinking some of the initial survivors chose to die instead. And did.

    This is a harrowing story, like a modern Donner party.

    Also, the survivors had a reunion at a match last year and played the game they had missed:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/n...

  • It's been a while since I read it (my sixth grade teacher lent it to me!), but I do recall that there was an older woman (at least, older than the team guys) who survived the initial crash but died because she wouldn't do it.

  • Julia

    I definitely have to return to the book to double check, but if I remember correctly some people held out for longer than others, but eventually every person realized that it was necessity. And thank you for sharing that link! Very cool!

  • BabyBearStrikesAgain

    My dad actually went to school with those guys and played rugby with them. He could've been one of the guys in the plane...

    We ran into one of them in the airport in Montevideo years ago. It's astounding that they are still able to get on a plane after that. Apparently, one of them carries a lot of food on his suitcase every time he travels. The doctor guy, Canessa, actually ran for president a while ago too.

  • Julia

    Wow! That's so cool! Thank you for sharing!

  • ViciousTrollop

    I'm so glad your dad is okay!

  • BabyBearStrikesAgain

    Yeah, he quit the team right before this happened to marry my mom and go on their honeymoon. Talk about lucky!

  • Dragonchild

    But where do you bury the survivors?

    Seriously, "miracle" doesn't strike me as inappropriate so much as inaccurate. A "miracle" is something that happens. If the boys waited for something to happen, they would have all died.

    The fierce tenacity of one's will to survive is NOT a "miracle". I know you meant well, but "miracle" cheapens the effort. If I survived 72 days in the Andes surrounded by frozen corpses and resorting to cannibalism, I'd want to punch anyone who wanted to call my hard-fought survival a "miracle".

  • Julia

    Hi! Okay, so I understand where you're coming from, I never meant to undervalue the boys' accomplishment, but if we just look at the definition of miracle for a second:

    http://www.merriam-webster.com...

    I was going a little bit more for definition number two. Given the odds that the boys had, I think it qualifies as an "outstanding event." I hope that clears things up!

    Also in my defense, Nando Parrado, one of the survivors of the crash, called his book about the harrowing experience, "Miracle in the Andes."

    http://www.amazon.com/Miracle-...

  • MikeRoorda

    Just letting you know that reddit.com/r/atheism is awaiting your (un)righteous indignation. Go forth and proselytize to the choir.

  • MrFrye

    I'm going to have to agree with Dragonchild on this one. "Miracle", as you two seem to be defining it, implies divine intervention. I don't see a lot of "divine intervention" in a situation where people have to resort to cannibalism to survive.

  • MikeRoorda

    Not at all. I was simply commenting on the fact that those who are compelled to point out "miracles aren't real" whenever anyone uses the term are just as frustrating as evangelicals who tsk tsk whenever someone drops a goddamn in the convo.

  • Kballs

    But aren't you generalizing Dragonchild's comment just like the evangelicals you mention? I think they made a strong, reasoned, valid point about saving the word "miracle" for situations that actually deserve it. Nowhere did the comment say miracles aren't real.

  • Mr. E

    If you enjoyed the book, try the movie. Especially if, while reading the book, you thought..."Man, this is an intense, inspiring tale of life and friendship, but it would be way cooler if the main characters were white!"

  • Julia

    Haha, the movie just needed less Ethan Hawke.

  • BabyBearStrikesAgain

    Sorry dude, but Uruguayans are mostly white.

  • Alberto Cox Délano

    Indeed, a substantial migration of Italians, Ukranians, French and so forth all over the River Plate basin. Plus, even if it weren't the case, Rugby is generally played by upper-class people, which in Latin America, because of the obvious historical reasons, are mostly white.

  • Mr. E

    Calling them white is a bit of a stretch. They may have lighter skin tones, but "Ethan Hawke" -white, they are not.
    Besides, my point had more to do with the casting of the film, with the majority of the team being of a darker skin tone...unless they had speaking parts. Then one brown guy gets to be the voice for the rest while the couple of white guys chew up screen time.

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