Cannonball Read V: Alive by Piers Paul Read
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.
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