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Survivors! True Death-defying Escapes

by Larry Verstraete

The most important part of this book’s title is not the word “survivors,” it’s the exclamation point. This is a book written in exclamation points, and while most of these accounts of survival are indeed harrowing (people swept away by hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis; attacked by sharks, grizzlies, and crocodiles), the relentlessly breathless tone in which Verstraete relates these episodes (just under 30 of them in about 150 pages) makes them run together, levelling them out.

Verstraete, the Winnipeg-based author of Extreme Science, Accidental Discoveries, and Whose Bright Idea Was It?, does organize the tales into vague categories (such as “Overpowered,” “Attacked,” and “Stranded”), but the sameness of his approach makes for some odd equivalencies – as when the accounts of three survivors of the World Trade Center attack are followed immediately by the story of a man with his arm caught in his snow-blower (“It’s Tearing Off My Arm!”). After a while you begin to suspect that Verstraete could turn a slip in the shower or a particularly bad rash into another case of death courageously defied.

Part of this is perhaps a quality inherent to the genre of survivor stories, but it’s hard not to wish that Verstraete had chosen fewer accounts, making more room for information and context. Similarly, some of the space taken up by generic black-and-white photos of cougars, volcanoes, and so forth would have been better served with maps, charts, or informative sidebars. The survival tips that come at the end of most stories are an attempt to inject some educational content into the book, though even these are occasionally laughable: “Once you are freed [from a crocodile’s mouth] seek medical help immediately … serious infection is a real possibility.” Got that, kids?