Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book review: "Miracle in the Andes"

In "Miracle in the Andes," author Nando Parrado offers an intensely personal account of the ordeal suffered by himself and others after the 1972 Andes plane crash made famous by the book and movie, "Alive."

The story of how 16 out of 45 people, most of them members of a Uruguayan rugby team, survived 72 days in the Andes in part because they ate the bodies of the dead, has been widely told. It was Parrado, more than any of the others, who saved them by pushing for, and then making, a seemingly impossible 10-day hike out of the mountains.

While "Alive" told the grim facts of the ordeal, "Miracle in the Andes" takes readers deeper into the trauma and fear experienced by the survivors. This was especially true for Parrado, whose mother died in the crash and whose sister died of her injuries shortly afterward.

"For me, those months in the mountains were days of heartbreak, horror and irretrievable loss," he writes.

After a slow start in which Parrado goes on for too long on his family's history (skim ahead), the book gains strength and draws the reader in. It's well-written, though I'm not sure how much credit goes to Parrado and how much to his co-writer, Vince Rause. Parrado seems reluctant to dwell too much on the cannibalism, but when he does he describes it simply as something they had to do to survive. Some in the group tried to justify their actions with religious reasons, but to Parrado the "meat" was simply nourishment.

Despite the engaging writing, I found myself frustrated by how poorly the survivors of the crash handled their dire situation. They seemed to think that a helicopter would magically show up and they'd be rescued. They did nothing to make their crash site more visible to rescue planes nor did they make any extra effort to signal search aircraft.

Parrado, who was unconscious for two days after the crash, was troubled when he awoke to see the attitude of the others. "It alarmed me that others were placing so much trust in the hope that we would be saved."

They took way too long to consider hiking out. By the time they did, they were seriously weakened by starvation, thin air, brutal winds and freezing temperatures. They gave up too easily on a possible escape route to the east, which may have been better than the western route they ultimately chose.

In fairness, the survivors were teenagers and young men with little to no experience in the mountains, no adult leadership and no survival training, so their missteps are understandable. It's just that in reading a story like this you want to root for characters who are doing all they can to help themselves, and it's frustrating when they don't.

Still, there are other reasons to engage with characters and in this book it's Parrado's sheer force of will and determination to get out of the mountains that is inspiring. He and his friend, Roberto Canessa, march over a mountain that would challenge professional climbers, and they do it with no specialized equipment. It is Parrado's and Canessa's hike out that is the true "miracle" in this story.

"It wasn't cleverness or courage or any kind of competence or savvy that saved us, it was nothing more than love, our love for each other, for our families, for the lives we wanted so desperately to live," Parrado writes.

Throughout the book, Parrado describes how the survivors debated and agonized over the religious meaning of their situation. Would God save them, or had God forgotten them? Is there a God at all?, some asked. Parrado has no answers to those questions, but has no doubt the plane crash changed his life.

"The Andes took so much from me," he writes, "but they also gave me the simple insight that has liberated me and illuminated my life: Death is real, and death is very near. ... I believe that life should be enjoyed, but my experiences have taught me that without the love of my family and my friends, all the trappings of worldly success would ring hollow."


(Please support this blog by clicking on an ad.)

No comments:

Post a Comment