True Survival

Staff Picks

True Survival

Non-Fiction Adventure

True-life adventure stories have made for popular reading for generations. The books listed below are retellings of bestselling firsthand accounts published in periodicals and books, months or days after the return home. Well researched, these newer works combine multiple firsthand experiences of survivors as well as rescuers wherever possible and make these much read stories even more accessible. Pick one or all for fascinating reading sure to help you tackle your reading goal of 20 minuter per day (Check out the Summer Challenge!).

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King
In August of 1815 the merchant brigantine Commerce leaves Gibraltar for the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa.  The Canary Islands are a familiar way point for sailing along the coast, but the Commerce never catches sight of the archipelago due to a heavy fog. The ship runs aground on the west coast of North Africa where the 12 sailors are harassed by locals. A second landing by long boat ends in capture and enslavement. Survivors Archibald Robbins and James Riley would go on to chronicle the men’s ordeal in widely read separate memoirs, the basis for author and maritime historian Dean King’s retelling. King retraces the captive’s 800 mile march across the Sahara and offers research and personal anecdotes on severe dehydration and sun poisoning. Local customs of the early 19th century, a glossary and maps round out this harrowing classic.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
A few short years after the Commerce leaves Hartford, Conn., for its fateful voyage, the whaleship Essex leaves Nantucket for what will become one of the most talked about maritime disasters in history.  Sperm whales provide the best quality oil, but they have been over hunted in the Atlantic Ocean. The Essex and other whale ships must journey to the Pacific Ocean, often spending 2 to 3 years at sea rendering enough oil to satisfy investors. The Essex leaves harbor in August of 1819, late in the whaling season.  Two much needed whale boats are lost before the Essex reaches the Pacific, a bad sign. Worse, the Essex travels further and longer than other ships in order to make up for a short fall in oil. When the ship is rammed and destroyed by an enormous sperm whale, the Essex is far from the aid of other ships. Incomplete and inaccurate geographical information and fractured leadership add to the already lethal mix. Of the 20 men who survive the wreck only eight will be found alive months later, emaciated and with evidence of cannibalism.  Nathaniel Philbrick, like Dean King, a maritime scholar, pulls together First Mate Owen Chase’s account, often mentioned as the inspiration for Moby Dick, and a largely unknown account by the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson. Other shipwrecks, the racial dynamic on the ship and its impact on the survivors and the history of New England and Nantucket whaling augment an incredible narrative.

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette by Hampton Sides
With the voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette in July of 1879 this book list enters the realm of adventure for national glory. U.S. Navy officer George Washington De Long, a veteran of the Arctic, proposes a Bering Sea route in the international race to the North Pole to New York Herald publisher, James Gordon Bennett Jr. Bennett financed Henry Morton Stanley’s search for Dr. David Livingstone in East Africa, increasing the circulation of his newspaper. Bennett’s involvement garners greater support and public knowledge for the Jeannette voyage, so as the crew reach Arctic waters, there are many accounts of sightings of the ship. Still the Bering Sea is largely unmapped and Arctic currents unknown and the Jeannette becomes locked in ice for two years. All 33 men survive the long drift in the well-outfitted ship, but months of idleness affect the sledging dogs and the men are less prepared for an overland journey when the ship finally succumbs to the ice. The journey by boat in open ocean seals the fate of a third of the crew and De Long’s boat party, another third, has only two members who reach an occupied settlement and rescue. By October of 1881 there are only 13 survivors. Hampton Sides utilizes De Long’s published diaries, survivor George Melville’s remarkable story, ship’s logs, letters and accounts by would-be rescuers to riveting affect.

Spirit of Endurance and Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and Endurance by Jennifer Armstrong
Heavily documented, there are many books on Shackleton’s Endurance Voyage (1914-1917). Children’s author Jennifer Armstrong provides two accessible reads on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s third Antarctic voyage: the oversized, illustrated Spirit of Endurance and the expansive Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World.  Unlike the Essex and the Jeannette, the Endurance was practically new when it was outfitted for the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914 and one of the best made ships for ice.  The south Atlantic leg of the expedition was planned for the summer when there would be less pack ice, but the Endurance had to push for every mile. Within sight of the proposed landing the ship became locked in ice. More than a year into the expedition the Endurance sank.  Months camping, sledging and drifty on ice lead to a push for land in 3 lifeboats.  After landing on largely unknown Elephant Island Shackleton led a smaller party to South Georgia Island, a whaling and shipping outpost, over 800 miles of treacherous open ocean.  An even smaller party trekked across the unexplored mountainous interior of the island to reach civilization. Read Spirit of Endurance or Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World for the full exciting story.

Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration by David Roberts
The Antarctic expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries abound with tales of man’s struggle against nature. Unknown terrain, unpredictable weather and unsuitable equipment and practices proved fatal to many an explorer. As Roald Amundsen used techniques learned from indigenous Arctic peoples to perfection to capture the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911, Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition was a month behind and would famously end badly. Douglas Mawson, who had gained a knighthood from Shackleton’s 1907-1910 Antarctic expedition and had been invited to join Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova, set out on his own expedition before he could learn from Amundsen’s. Though his expedition was successful in completing its purpose of gathering geological information, the suffering of Mawson and his companions was tremendous. David Roberts makes use of the many surviving details of the Australian Antarctic Expedition, including Mawson’s terse published diary entries, for a detailed and heart-stopping account.

Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak by Andy Hall
Bestselling adventure nonfiction of the second half of the 20th century would be in an increasingly popular sport: mountain climbing. French climber Maurice Herzog would turn his 1950 ascent of Annapurna into so thrilling a narrative that it is still seen today as the benchmark of adventure nonfiction. Andy Hall’s Denali’s Howl is perhaps a successor in great storytelling. During the summer of 1967 Joe Wilcox, a student at Brigham Young University, lead 11 college acquaintances up Denali, the tallest mountain in North America and at 144 square miles, the largest mountain on dry land. Andy Hall, son of the Mount McKinley National Park superintendent, was in his father’s Park Service truck when his father got the news about the dead and presumed dead young men in Wilcox’s party following a freak storm. Not known as particularly deadly, the deaths of Wilcox’s companions near its summit would more than double any previously recorded loss life on Denali. Denali’s Howl is comparable to Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air in that the author’s life story is part of the narrative, making for great reading.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer begins Into Thin Air with the disclaimer that he, as a fellow survivor of the disaster on Everest in May 1996, could not fully rely upon his own impressions, and sought out the recollections of others in researching the book. That said Krakauer’s own story is insightful. An experienced climber (Krakauer describes his own ascent of Denali in the book) and writer of the bestselling Into the Wild, Krakauer is sent by Outside magazine on a guide lead ascent to report on the commercialization of Mount Everest. Not seen as technically difficult the mountain has become a “yak route” for eager tourists. With a long acclimatization period, a small climbing window and high permit fees, ascents are often crowded. In May of 1996, 12 people would die on the mountain, 9 in a single day, making this the single deadliest season up until then. A freak storm would, again, be seen as the lead cause for the death toll, but other factors are postulated. Twenty minutes a day of reading will be a breeze with this page-turner.