Thursday, March 1, 2012

survival (or not!) stories

I finished The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln by Kate Clifford Larson. It continued to be rather dry throughout but was interesting by dint of being about something which was quite new to me: that the assassination of Lincoln was actually a complicated scheme carried out by a group of individuals, not just the result of one Southern actor going batty. Mary Surratt was the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth's best friends and possible co-conspirators, and the owner of the boarding house where Booth met with his cronies (and hid his weapons). She was found guilty of treason and was the first woman executed by the U.S. government. The most memorable thing about the book, for me, was that the execution, by hanging, was photographed, and Larson includes the photographs in the book. I found them terrifying.

Then I read Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors, by Edward E. Leslie, which was recommended by a friend after I disclosed my fascination with cannibalism and castaways. And yes, this book was pretty much written for me. It is 500 pages of survival and frostbite and bear attacks and people eating each other. Leslie's writing style is occasionally over-the-top and seems to come from the 1930s instead of the 1990s, but anyone who uses W.S. Gilbert's poetry to make a point gets kudos from me. He inexplicably leaves out the Donner Party and the Franklin expedition; perhaps he thought they've been overdone*, but how can you have an entire section on survival cannibalism and never even mention the Donners or Franklin?

This book has the distinction of being only the second in my Librarything collection that I have tagged with both "animals that will eat you" and "cannibalism nom nom". The first was actually about the Franklin expedition: Dan Simmons' profoundly-flawed-but-mad-creepy The Terror, which made me afraid to go in my basement for three days, because I couldn't be sure that a supernaturally malevolent polar bear representing The White Man's Hubris wasn't down there**.

However, I also had to add to Desperate Journeys my least favorite tag - "dog fatality" - because people in these stories eat their dogs left and right. In one dreadful recounting, a couple trying to hike out of the Alaska wilderness had to leave their dog behind when they were forced to climb a 150-foot frozen waterfall. The next day, the dog rejoined them; she somehow made her way up 150 feet of sheer ice, because there is no greater force than canine love. So naturally about a week later they killed and ate her.

ARE YOU SERIOUS, I said. I am sorry to report that both people survived, but they will each be assigned, in the afterlife, the role of Cerberus' Chew Toy. (This is also what will happen to Michael Vick.)

"But, Beatrice," you ask, "would you behave any differently in their place? Some of us have seen you when you're hungry." Indeed, and I would eat my fellow humans in a heartbeat! But much more to my liking, in this book, is the story of a yacht captain who was condemned for refusing to throw his dog overboard in order to make space in a lifeboat for more men. Dear readers, if possible you should avoid traveling on any doomed ships with my dogs and me, because Darcy alone would take up three lifeboat seats. "Sorry!" I would shout, rowing away. "I can't hear you over Bingley's panic-vomiting!" (This would not be entirely a lie.) 

But I will not be going to live in an Alaskan cabin with winter coming on, a limited food supply, and a dog, ever. I don't even camp. I enjoy the outdoors, and will happily hike for eight hours, provided that at the end of those eight hours I can shower, and brush my teeth properly, and sleep in a bed. Lying down to sleep on the pointy ground, feeling grimy all over, and with my glasses precariously suspended in one of those tent pockets which always migrate to the other side of the tent in the night, so that when I wake at four in the morning I have to climb over all my tentmates to be anything but high-gravel-blind... not my idea of a good time. And that's before it starts raining and the bears attack ("No! Please! The next campsite over has all the hubris! I swear!").

And the dogs and I rarely go yachting. So we're probably okay.

All in all, what a great book to read curled on the couch with spicy hot chocolate while "wintry mix", that charming New England euphemism for "everything unpleasant falling from the sky at once", goes on outside. If you are me, and like that sort of thing. Because I have issues.

Now reading Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith (my Early Reviewers book). I'm at her coronation, and so far, it's pretty good. Probably not going to be any cannibalism in this one, though.

*Cooking joke: BRILLIANT

**I called dibs on "Hubristic Death Bear" as a band name years ago, so hands off.


  1. Hubristic Death Bear's debut album: "Party like the Donners."

    And next in the "let's make some stuff up" school of history, a creatively researched study showing, through heretofore unrecognized clues in his plays, that Shakespeare was a cannibal, AND that he killed and ate the Queen!

  2. Hubristic Death Bear's debut album: "Party like the Donners."

    I just fell out of my chair.