Will to Live: Dispatches from The Edge of Survival by Les Stroud. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011, 230 pp., $17.99.
Wilderness survival and the unique and harrowing stories of real life survivors and tragedies gives author Les Stroud much to contemplate within the pages of Will to Live: Dispatches from The Edge of Survival. What is the primary mitigating factor between life and death in a survival situation? Stroud seeks to discover the answer to this question by examining the survival stories of several well-known cases in which people lived or perished in this follow-up volume to his earlier work: Survive: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere-Alive. These stories find their setting in such diverse places as land and sea, forest and jungle. Equally, the personalities involved in the narratives are just as varied as the settings in which their survival experience takes place. The author admits that years of survival training can never substitute for the actual experiences of those who endured their ordeals. He states, “Therein lies one of the greatest problems I and other survival instructors have always faced. We rarely get the opportunity to really do the one thing we are best at: getting caught and subsequently tested in a true survival situation” (p. 1-2). Stroud offers his thesis when he articulates that discovering how people react when faced with a survival situation and how those reactions influenced the outcome of those circumstances guides the theme of the book (p. 4-5). The result is that the reader is left with a small library of case studies in survival psychology, ingenuity, perseverance, and tragedy. Stroud forensically examines each of the cases through the perspective of an expert survival instructor seeking to answer the bigger questions of cause and effect with analysis on lessons learned. The pages of Will to Live gives both novice and experienced outdoorsman a good foundation on the high cost of survival.
Les Stroud is the founder of Les Stroud productions. His work includes the award winning Survivorman television program. He is also an accomplished musician who has performed on stage with bands such as Journey and has gained the nickname, “The Hendrix of Harmonica”. He is a member of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. Stroud is also active in environmental causes and is a board member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Organization. He has recently launched Survivorman Television, an online network to continue to promote Survivorman®, his music, and environmental awareness. He publishes a website called, Survivorman-Les Stroud, http://www.lesstroud.ca/.
Will to Live is a study in survival psychology examined through the various real-world survival experiences of others. It seeks to uncover the difference between those who survived their ordeals and those who did not. The book seeks to answer from a psychological perspective on what makes the difference between surviving or perishing when lost or stranded. It reviews seven different stories of people who lived or perished when faced with life-threatening circumstances. They form seven chapters within the book. Stroud analyzes each chronicle through four elements of survival: knowledge, luck, kit, and will to live. The author intersperses his own experiences in five of the chapters in the book. The Epilogue of the book functions as the conclusion in which the author muses the implications of the individual cases and their analysis and concludes, “In going through the ordeals articulated in these pages, a new reality has become clear to me: luck plays a more important role than I originally thought” (p. 222). This gives the reader pause to contemplate the surviving of a life-threatening experience can be attributed to luck by an expert in the field.
After a short introduction, Stroud goes into the first survival story; that of Yossi Ghinsberg. Ghinsberg survived in the jungles of the Amazon for three weeks (p. 9). He details his story in the book Back from Tuichi (1993). Critical to this account is the lack of experience and training shown by the guide, Karl, on this Amazon adventure gone awry (p. 10). However, Stroud observes that Yossi’s survival mentality and unique ingenuity seemed to be key factors in his survival (p. 22). It is no surprise that the survival ordeal of Yossi Ghinsberg finds its place at the beginning of the book. His experience serves as the analytical template that the author uses for the other studies within the pages of the book. Some of the cases analyzed are: Nando Parrado’s survival on the Andes Mountains (p. 43-69); the Robertson Family’s survival at sea (p. 79-109); the tragic tale of Chris McCandless and the Alaskan wilderness (p. 117-133); the Stolpa family stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains (p. 141-159); the tragedy of the Karluk expedition in the Arctic (p. 169-195), and the Mawson expedition at the South Pole (p. 197-219). Stroud deftly moves the reader through each of the narratives to point out both the positive and negative aspects of each.
Beneficial to the reader, beyond the stories themselves, are the author’s side bar comments that gives added information pertinent for each survival scenario. The reader will find suggestions by the author on how to test the edibility of plants (p. 23), the contents for a sea survival kit (p. 85), what to put into a survival kit for a vehicle (p. 148), or the symptoms of rabbit starvation (p. 189). The book does not focus primarily on the techniques of survival such as building a shelter, starting a fire, etc. Rather, the author takes the reader on a survival journey to discover the psychology of survival and how that influences decision-making, ingenuity, and, ultimately, the outcome of the ordeal. For example, in the Karluk account, Stroud highlights the positive influence that staying busy had on the crew and how important that was on the human psyche in the Arctic region (p. 177-79). He then has side bar commentary on how the lack of sunlight and physical activity affects the mind (p. 178). The importance of this type of information to the reader, especially the outdoor enthusiast, is critical to understanding survival psychology.
The one observed weakness in the text of Will to Live is the lack of discussion on how physiology effects emotions and rational thinking in a survival situation. For example, it does not discuss with any detail how the lack of food or water over an extended period may cause chemical changes in the body that influence mental function. It would be interesting to include some analysis by a medical doctor or psychiatrist with each of the stories regarding the effects of the starvation or dehydration process on emotions, thinking, and decision-making. However, the book is not an academic analysis on the psychology of survival. Rather, its purpose is to target a wide spectrum of people interested in the outdoors who may have only a cursory knowledge of survival psychology at best. Therefore, the book achieves its intended purpose on that level.
Overall, Les Stroud brilliantly argues his theme on the topic of survival psychology. The Will to Live captures the essence of what it means to persevere in a survival situation. Some of the stories have a positive outcome and some do not. Yet, all these accounts give the reader a glimpse into the mental fortitude necessary to endure the harsh realities of being in a life-threating situation in the outdoors, whether on land or sea. This book entrusts to the reader a small library of case studies on survival that will help the outdoor adventurer or enthusiast. Survival is more than learning a technique or acquiring a tool. The intangibles of survival are luck and will. This makes the act of survival even more sobering considering the author’s analysis and commentary. Will to Live will motivate the reader to investigate further the psychology of survival. Equally, it will empower the reader to see contemporary survival-related news reports through a different perspective. One can gain knowledge through training and reading. One can gain tools and become proficient in their employment. However, one cannot quantify luck or will. Everyone has a breaking point physically, mentally, and emotionally. Stroud causes the reader to examine themselves against the backdrop of those who found themselves suddenly in a survival situation and ask, “Do I have what it takes to survive?” Everyone who is interested in the outdoors or is actively involved in the outdoors will do well to read the pages of this book.
William H. Lavender, II