Alive (Piers Paul Reid)

On Friday, October 13, 1972 a Fairchild F-227, chartered from the Uruguayan Air Force, carrying a young amateur rugby team and their families and friends from Uruguay, slammed into the middle of the remote Andes Mountains in Argentina…This is a legendary book that shook the conscience of the world in the 1970s. And now, 45 years on from the tragedy, this non-fiction work still makes for compelling reading. Forty five passengers and the crew were on the plane before it crashed. Only sixteen of the passengers left the mountain alive.

When you know from the beginning of a book that a plane full of young men crash lands in the snowy mountains, and somehow some of those boys survive for weeks and weeks – you know it’s not going to be a pretty story. And it’s not. It’s survival at its grittiest core, what do we humans really need to stay alive? Their story is told in an incredibly straightforward, almost newspaper-story type narrative. There’s no real emotion. There’s no flowery speech. It’s just as true of a retelling as you can get under the circumstances and if I’m going to read non-fiction, that’s exactly how I like it. Most real life events are over embellished. What they go through on that mountain is so grueling: the terror, the fear, the frustration, the pain and hunger and the bone biting cold. And yet what’s interesting is their faith throughout, their actual, real belief that they will be saved despite the deck being stacked against them.

They get creative and turn the carcass of the plane into a shelter, they go on expeditions to find out where they are and look for help, they make their own blankets and sleeping bags and perform emergency medical procedures on each other. They eat everything that could possibly be eaten until there is nothing left but the bodies of their comrades that are frozen out in the snow. In order to stay alive, those are eaten too. It does make one squeamish, to read the grisly details of their meals and I keep asking myself if I could do it. Would I do whatever it took to be with my children again? Regardless of what I would do, this story did make for fascinating reading. But, as a gringo, I could not for the life of me keep all those Hispanic names of the boys and their parents mentally organized. It drove me loco.

I finally gave up and by the end I knew maybe who five of them really were, but honestly, it didn’t matter that much. The author did his best. No, this story is not for the faint of heart and sometimes, of course, people let their weaknesses get the better of them. One drawback for me is the account of the families’ attempt to locate the bodies with the help of a psychic. I suppose these passages let us spend some time with the families and let us know what they’re going through, but of course the psychic accomplishes absolutely nothing and doesn’t have a clue where the survivors are. Every time we visit the families and the psychic we are being taken away from the real story. Apart from this small gripe I find in these pages an incredible sense of triumph. Human beings are absolutely astonishing creatures and it’s amazing how deep that survival instinct can burn. Alive is simply the greatest survival story. Ever.

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