Mariner Books, 1988
When I started reading this anthology of tales of surviving (or not) shipwrecks, airplane crashes, and general lost-in-the-woods survival, it was pretty easy going. But 520 pages and something like two months later I made way to the back page, a little undernourished, slightly crazed, and vowing never to read any more anthologies on just this subject.
Well, I kid. But Edward E. Leslie is a pretty generic writer. He did his research, but most of this book is a paraphrase of survivors tales from the Elizabethan era onward. Only a few times does he fill in some of the historical data (a bit on pirates, a bit on the “survivor tale” cottage industry, a bit on the early days of aviation where barnstorming and daredevils were all the rage) as a context. There’s a few pages on analysis on the psychological effects of surviving near-death experiences, on cannibalism, and, right near the end, a bit of modern commentary on the shallowness of the “life lessons” more recent survivors have gathered.
Most survivors who have come of age since the 1950s do not claim to find any deep meaning in their travails. Conditioned by popular culture, they report that what they have learned is to live for the moment and to appreciate the little things in life. It is remarkable just how often these sentiments are expressed using these very words. For instance, one recent surivivor, referring to an ordeal during which he was very close indeed to dying explained that “when God didn’t let me go, I was sure He had something in mind for me. And now I think I know what it was–learning to really appreciate living. Little things I used to take for granted, i don’t anymore. Just getting up in the morning or watching one of my boys hook a fish is an unbeleivable thrill. I never felt this way before–and it’s wonderful.”
Did God have Job and Jonah suffer just so they would notice the flowers beside the well-worn path or the play of light in a drop of water? Paul was struck blind on the Damascus road so that he might be able to open his eyes and see. Today, sitting atop the ruins of our lives, we do not reconcile ourselves to God, fate, or the laws of the natural universe; instead we find wonder in the petals of roses that push up through the ashes. We do not discover inspiration in the belly of the leviathan; rather we emerge from that enormous digestive tract to pay heed to the phosphorescent fishes that swim near the surface of the vast ocean.
As we kneel on that ancient thoroughfare, the scales having fallen from our eyes, we lift our heads and cannot perceive anything in the bright new light that our popular culture has not instructed us will be there. And this culture teaches us that nothing is of value except wealth and immediate gratification.”
And this is the last page where it starts getting interesting. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of this quasi-Christian editorializing, disagreeing with some of it as I do–(Is Leslie hoping that all survivors will gain deep wisdom, that of a prophet? Does he favor the Old Testament God to Jesus? He throws the bit out there about popular culture, but spends an early chapter discussing the survivor narrative. The fact that some of these sailors returned repenting their sins. Is that a better reaction? Can’t it be just as shallow?) As I said, he barely goes into it.
Mostly, though, the book is just paraphrasing.
There are some good stories to be found. Most chilling is a diary kept by a man marooned on an island by pirates for what we take to be buggery (on the high seas, as the comedy sketch goes). He does well to survive 150 days, but he makes some crucial mistakes, among them wasting entire days repenting to God. Reading the diary excerpts, I assumed he had made it home. But no, he goes crazy from hunger and illness and dies. The diary was then purportedly found by soldiers a year later (sitting next to a skeleton, perhaps?).
I also liked this WWII story of three men in a life raft in the Atlantic, slowly going insane, until there’s one man left. It’s grim stuff.
Leslie leaves some trivial but important details out, too. But then, in other places it seems like all he’s concerned about is the trivial. For example, he leaves a whole chapter to the tale of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and friend, who survived being stuck in the Libyan desert. Not that it’s essential to the story, but it was my friend who reminded me later, as I told him the story, that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went on to write “The Little Prince.” You’d think that would at least deserve a mention.
And in a final story about a woman whose plane crashed into a cliff in the Sierra Nevadas, he uses a photo of her “with Blair Brown, the actress who portrayed her in the movie version of her story.” Wouldn’t you like to know what movie that was? Well, Leslie doesn’t tell us.
(But I will: it was a TV-movie from 1978 called And I Alone Survived, a title that kind of ruins the suspense when she starts off with two other people.)
Also, by the end, Leslie is jamming in as many 20th century survival tales as he can. Somebody needed to edit this book a bit more. In fact, someone else should have written it. Leslie doesn’t have the black humor to pull off these tales of human misery. My candidate: John Marr, who used to write a great zine called Murder Can Be Fun, whose gleefully wrote about themes such as postal worker shootings without sounding cold-hearted or callous. I think you can still find some of his writings online that may pertain to our subject.