June 2, 2009

Adventure and Survival - Guest post by Diane McKenzie

Adventure and Survival

My family likes to read books about survival. You might think there is nothing “educational” about what most people see as true adventure, but I think these books are excellent educational tools. For example, each book has a geographical setting that is worth exploring (like Antarctica, Tibet, or the south Pacific Islands) and many books have intriguing cultural/social backgrounds (like early 20th century arctic explorations, Siberian gulags, or Borneo tribal society.) Many survival books also introduce new concepts and new vocabulary, often related to sailing, naval and army operations, or mountaineering. However, the major reason I like to read this genre of books is my interest in the qualities and importance of leadership and in why people (most specifically me) act the way they do under stress.

If you get interested in survival literature, a great source book is the fairly new Deep Survival, Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, by Laurence Gonzales. The first half explores the neurological and psychological reason why people put themselves in dangerous situations and why they make bad decisions about their own safety. The second half (my favorite) looks at what types of people are most likely to survive. Gonzales writes a lot on survival for outdoor magazines, has a blog, and I believe writes a column for National Geographic.

The first survival books I remember reading at about age 12 were Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea, and Pitcairn’s Island by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall. These are fiction but they are based on actual events and they contain many of the elements of what is best about survival literature. They explore the nature of leadership, show the importance of social structure for people, and look at how we respond to crisis. In Mutiny on the Bounty most of us would be on the side of Fletcher Christian, who seems to be a strong, charismatic leader who is much more in touch with the needs of the crew as he mutinies against Captain Bligh, the autocratic and cruel captain. However, Bligh’s leadership abilities are clear in Men Against the Sea as he guides eighteen men with essentially no navigation tools and little food or water in an open longboat over 3,000 miles to Timor, in the Dutch East Indies This voyage is still seen as one of the most amazing and impressive of all small craft sea voyages. It is even more impressive when compared with the anarchy and devastation that develops in Pitcairn’s Island (I always felt that Lord of the Flies used Pitcairn’s as a model).

There is so much in these books to use for discussion. There is 18th century society and importance of ships and the culture of the sailing and the British navy. Although younger readers may not be able to appreciate Caroline Alexander’s wonderful current book Bounty, it is a valuable book for learning more about the context of the Mutiny trilogy. (Anything written by Caroline Alexander is worth reading but tends to have an adult audience). As I noted, one of my favorite aspects of survival literature is the nature of leadership. The question of leadership is present throughout the three books, and there are many of the more difficult aspects and ambiguities of leadership that make discussions worthwhile. There is also the question of social structure – for me it was my first introduction to the concept of anarchy which was especially difficult when weighed against the autocracy of the 18th century society with its hanging offenses. (I turned into a lifelong anti-death penalty advocate.)And don’t forget the geography and social context – the Bounty was carrying bread fruit trees from Tahiti to Cuba to introduce the tree as a source of food for slaves.

There seem to be a huge number of resources on the web about this trilogy. One that I found worthwhile is the extensive article in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutiny_on_the_Bounty. In addition to the Alexander book, John Barrows published in 1831 an account of the mutiny and Captain Bligh himself wrote an account: The Mutiny on Board H.M.S. Bounty: The Captain's Account of the Mutiny and His 3,600 Mile Voyage in an Open Boat.

Oh, yes the movie - movies, actually, the trilogy was made into movies in 1935, 1962, and 1984. I didn’t see any of them. In general, I think AFTER reading a book, a movie version can be fun and interesting.

Don’t forget the fun of learning about an author. If I like a book I can become obsessed and read everything that author has written. Nordhoff is a strange and fascinating person who decamped to Tahiti and married a Polynesian woman in the 1920’s. In the early 1940’s he returned to California and committed suicide after a long bout of depression.

More Survival Titles

The trilogy may be enough survival for most people, but if you have the bug like I do, let me suggest a few “best titles” and a few caveats. I think these titles can be read and enjoyed by both girls and boys but probably the lower age limit is 11 or 12. These books may not be appropriate for younger kids even if they are read aloud. I tend to focus on books in which people overcome the difficulties of nature and not those in which humans inflict horrible cruelty on other humans. Bounty has some of this latter cruelty but it is not overly graphic. Finally, I wonder how the cell phone and GPS units and other tracking devices will change survival stories in the future. Kids may wonder why the protagonist simply didn’t phone home!

It was really hard to pick just a few titles.

Shackleton’s voyage to the Antarctic

The best two accounts are Alfred Lansing’s 1954 story Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage and Caroline Alexander’s 1988 story The Endurance
Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. I particularly like the photographs that come with the story of the Endurance. This is the single most amazing description of what good leadership is. I have read and listened to the Alexander book on audio tape and it is a good book read aloud. The film is very worthwhile seeing.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan is one of the best stories of personal ingenuity and determination. Steven is inventive and insightful and resourceful. I love the drawings that show his inventions and his sensitive involvement with the sea life he encounters in the Atlantic Ocean.

Survive the Savage Sea by Dougal Robertson. This book is of interest because it about an entire family that is lost at sea for 37 days in the Pacific Ocean. It is considered a lesson book for sea survival and Callahan refers to its influence in his survival.

117 Days Adrift by Maurice and Maralyn Bailey. The Bailey’s were lost in the Pacific Ocean and provide an interesting look at how important attitude and adapting to one’s surroundings can be.

The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz. This is the only book on this list that involves human cruelty, but that part is only at the beginning of the book. The story is an amazing tale of survival in the desert and mountains of Asia. Rawicz and his companions escape from a World War II Siberian Gulag and walk to India. Caution: Several of the people die in route

Touching the Void: The Harrowing First Person Account Of One Man's Miraculous Survival by Joe Simpson. I first watched this TV- special with two girls aged 14 and a boy age 15. They were totally captivated and it stimulated a great series of discussions. Simpson’s ability to focus and set both short and long term goals in spite of his physical agony impressed us all.

And don’t forget the obvious classic, Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. It has all of the elements of classic survival – along with the chance to talk about 18th century un-pc approaches to cultures other than our own. I also mention it because it is a good introduction to reading books with language that is a bit different from 20th – 21st American literature. My daughters came to love this earlier English or translated into English style and several of their favorite books were ones they asked me “help them get started” by reading aloud the first couple chapters. (I think they still re-read Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers on a regular basis.)


Joe Williams said...

Thanks Diane, Another great post, and more books to add to my To-Read shelf! I never really thought of it before, but so many of Dickens' books were survival stories. Not so much human versus nature, but human versus society or some metropolis. As for kids adventure lit, one of my earliest favorite books was My Side of the Mountain. - Joe

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Diane! I"m going to review these with my 11 yr old and hopefully it will lead to discussion and a book to read! I am at once fascinated by survival psychology and frightened by it. At the bottom of it all is "What would I do?" and that answer is never what we think it is...


Sarah said...

Thank you Diane!

A great survival and outdoorsy book that I'm reading right now is "Tracker" by Tom Brown, Jr. It's absolutely fascinating.