This book has been getting scads of publicity and lots of raves recently. I read it before all the reviews came out and I'm still baffled by the over the top plaudits it has received because I thought it was a decent read but not an overwhelming wow. Is it thrilling? Yes. Will it keep you reading? Probably. But there was something missing in it for me.
The story of little Norman Ollestad's amazing survival after a plane crash that ultimately killed everyone else on board, including Norman's father, and left him stranded on a mountain during a terribly snow storm, this is also the story of the early years of Norman's life as his father pushed him to become a surfer and a skier who pushed the envelope. The memoir alternates chapters between the life he shared with his mother, her boyfriend, and his father and the hours, moments leading up to and after the crash as he fights for survival. As Norman has drawn his childhood (the crash happened when he was only 11), I felt only anger and annoyance towards his parents.
His mother seemed to put her abusive boyfriend ahead of her son and his father was more interested in creating a "boy wonder" who excelled at his father's chosen sports than about the emotional well-being of a young child. Ollestad's love for these flawed parents is there in the book but what really stood out for me was that he spent a lot of time unhappy or terrified or neglected when with either of his parents. Of course, ultimately, his father's child-rearing method (push said child hard and relentlessly until the child attempts whatever simply to avoid being called a coward) helped Norman muster up the strength to make it down the mountain to safety, knowing his father and the pilot were dead and after seeing his father's girlfriend slide to her death too. So perhaps I am being too harsh in judging the scenes Ollestad has chosen to write about here. But I do know that I would have been pretty darn resentful of my parents for their treatment of me had the book been mine, rather than his.
As far as the story itself goes, it is pretty thrilling, edge of your pants. The alternating chapters are written differently, evoking either the feeling of a descriptive and haphazard childhood or the short, stacato adreneline bursts of the crash and its aftermath. And sending the reader from one extreme of writing to another just with the turn of the page helped to amp up the thrill factor. It is a story that no one should have had to live but Ollestad's writing has captured some of the dislocation and terror that he must have felt coming down that mountain. And I appreciated the final chapter, detailing his return to the crash site and his own handling of his young son with fair reflections on his father's parenting of him. I felt there was something destructive, intense and controlling in the daredevil father he's captured in these pages, something that made his death at a relatively young age inevitable. But not liking many (all?) of the people who made up his early life, I had a hard time caring too much about their terrible fates, a failing that is even more callous given that these are not characters but real people. I don't know whether the fault for this lack of connection is in the writing or in me personally. Did I read on avidly, despite knowing the outcome of the crash before even opening the first page (it's given away on the cover)? Yes. Did I feel gutted and drained when I finished reading it? No, I just felt detached and relieved to be finished. Adventure junkies will likely thrive on the adreneline rush this book provides while the more sedentary (or cowardly like me) might find themselves dismayed by the interpersonal relationships as presented here and wish for a bit more than the book delivered.