Piers Paul Read has written a few books that I often recommend. So when I picked up Alive and the cover read, “# 1 New York Times Bestseller,” “Sixteen men, seventy-two days, and insurmountable odds—the classic adventure of survival in the Andes,” I thought Piers Paul Read had authored another great work of fiction.
It wasn’t until I was on page 8-11 that I started having my doubts. Definitely, when I spotted a map on page 13, the possibility that Alive may not be fiction dawned on me. That’s what I get for skipping “Introductions.”
The Acknowledgements, Introduction, and the Interview with the Survivors, in the back of the book, confirmed the fact that Alive by Piers Paul Read was non-fiction. By then, it was too late. I was hooked.
I don’t only read fiction, after all. But Alive is so unbelievable, it could very well be fictitious. The survival of these men is so miraculous, it could be a tall tale. But it’s not. It’s made all too real by the author’s telling of the truth.
Piers Paul Read lists the passengers on the plane flying from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile. I got to know each one, and cared about them. Any author of fiction would create sympathy for their major character. Piers Paul Read does this for forty passengers and five crewmen. There were times I was brought to tears by their fate. I winced at their pain. Is this because of the author’s skill at fiction writing? Piers Paul Read definitely is skilled in the craft of writing, fiction and nonfiction. Although he apologizes in the Acknowledgements, for not having the skill to express what these survivors went through. I can’t imagine any author doing a better job.
This book is the most overtly Catholic book I’ve ever read, outside of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The author, Piers Paul Read is a Catholic writer. The characters are all Catholic. They are rugby football players from two Catholic schools. They pray their way through the book. They meet God through their ordeal.
The boys are going to a game. The plane crashes. The passengers’ prayers stormed heaven. The survivors thought a lot about God. As time passed and they became weaker, their thoughts and prayers became desperate. The boys made a conscious decision to organize and plan, since it didn’t look like search parties would find them. First, they prayed. Every night a rosary was prayed. At night many theological and philosophical problems were discussed.
But first things first, food was a premium. They ate what was available: wine, cheese, chocolate the passengers had bought as souvenirs. But the plane had landed in snow covered mountains. There was no vegetation and no game—absolutely no natural resources. After a few weeks, the medical students in the group suggested eating the muscle and flesh of their deceased peers. (The dead were naturally preserved due to the frozen conditions.) Of course there were objections. But in the end they had no choice. They all agreed that to survive, they themselves would offer their own bodies so the others may live. They even wrote letters to their parents explaining this, so if any of them survived they would not be judged criminally.
Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
How they survived is only through the grace of God. An avalanche covered the plane and more avalanches were always a threat, which is the main reason why a couple of the survivors had to trek out on their own to find help.
A couple of attempts were futile. The boys had to turn back disappointedly. The third attempt was a success when two of the survivors found a couple of Andean herdsmen. Soon after, search parties were sent out to find the others. Praise God.
The author didn’t end the story there. The passengers’ spiritual journey wasn’t finished. The survivors were grateful to God but because of their experience, yet they were a little afraid of the world. It was a bit of a culture shock. What people were giving them and making a big deal out of, just seemed excessive, unimportant and of no value. The boys craved solitude to process their experience and probably to express their thanks to God. Besides, at first the media and so the world, rejoiced at finding the survivors and the plane, but when it became known that the boys had turned to cannibalism, public opinion turned against them. It was unimaginable. What they did was debated in the press and other media. Over time, the hysteria died down and life went on.
However, life was never the same for the survivors. They had felt the presence of God and kept the faith through it all.
Alive is certainly not fiction, and its message suggests the significance of a biblical story.