In October 1972, a group of rugby players from Uruguay, along with several friends and neighbors, were flying across the Andes to Chile when their plane crashed. Seventy days later, sixteen survivors were rescued.
This is a well-known story, perhaps one of the best-known survival stories of modern times. I was already familiar with it from the 1993 movie, also titled Alive, the documentary on the movie DVD, and the audiobook of Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado, one of the survivors. I thought I’d had enough of this particular story, but Citizen Reader gave this book, the first written about the disaster, such a strong recommendation that I gave in. I’m glad I did. I whipped through the whole thing in a day. Even though I knew the story, this account was impossible to put down.
Author Piers Paul Read takes a very straightforward approach in describing what happened. He spends most of his time with the survivors of the plane crash, describing in detail how they organized their days and worked to survive. He also describes the search efforts by the families, some of them quite misguided. He does not editorialize, nor does he appear to shape the narrative to present cliff-hangers and other authorial tricks to garner interest.
Read’s restraint is significant when it comes to the survivors’ difficult decision to eat the bodies of the dead. He makes no great attempt to defend their decision, nor does he condemn it. Instead, he presents their logic and lets the reader decide. I find it hard to imagine anyone condemning them after reading this, and I think if Read had tried to argue for them, it could have backfired. Instead, he puts us in the moment, letting us understand how desperate the situation was and how they needed to find physical strength both to live and to find a way home. He also doesn’t sensationalize, although he describes their diet in some detail, partly, as he notes in the introduction, to stave off speculation that their actions were worse than they were. It is gruesome, but not gratuitous.
Another area where Read’s approach is useful is in his depiction of the group dynamics. Seventy days together in the best of conditions could be difficult, and these were the worst conditions. Although the survivors became a tight-knit group who relied on one another, there were tensions. Read never pretends that there weren’t. Some survivors ate more than their share, while others appeared to malinger and not do their share of the work. None of this is unexpected, and Read presents the conflict within the group as just one of many aspects of life at the crash site, making no great effort to dig into who was right and who was wrong. I liked that about his approach, because I don’t think it’s possible for me, in my cozy apartment on a sunny spring day, to judge someone stuck on a snowy mountain with serious injuries and little chance of survival.
I also appreciated Read’s focus. This story is about these survivors. There’s no need to pull in other, similar accounts. Read doesn’t provide additional context by looking at other, similar disasters, nor does he interview experts on survival or the Andes. Such information could have been interesting, but it could also have been a distraction. There’s enough material here, and the story stands well enough on its own.