Survival Books

Two new plane-crash memoirs hope to soar into the survival-narrative canon.

Bruce Barcott

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SELF-PRESERVATION IS a hot topic now­adays, especially in the publishing industry. This month, two memoirs by tough guys who walked away from separate plane crashes 30 years ago arrive to much fanfare. And each book draws a different lesson from fate’s decision to pluck the author from the wreckage. In Down Around Midnight: A Memoir of Crash and Survival (Viking, $26), Robert Sabbag recounts the night his Air New England flight went down on Cape Cod, killing the pilot and stranding seven passengers. Sabbag, at the time a 32-year-old bestselling author riding high on the success of his true-life cocaine thriller Snowblind, crawled from the plane with a broken back after dislodging a door and freeing his fellow passengers. Now, three decades later, he finally reconstructs the disaster with the aim of revealing a few essential truths about survival. The crash is plenty dramatic, but Sabbag’s existential digging is less satisfying. The author tracks down his fellow survivors to find out how the crash changed their lives and turns up few epiphanies. “There’s really no upside to severe trauma,” he writes. “The most you can hope for is to survive it.”

Pay for Play

Want to get in a situation that could lead to your own survival memoir? Turn to Jeff Blumenfeld, longtime editor of Expedition News, a charmingly old-school insider’s newsletter that has served as the adventure community’s Publishers Weekly for the past 15 years. In this month’s You Want to Go Where? How to Get Someone to Pay for the Trip of Your Dreams (, Skyhorse), Blumenfeld tells aspiring Stegers and Ankers how to secure coveted sponsorship money.
Tip one: Ask gear companies for cash before equipment.
Tip two: Hone your blogging chops.
Tip three: Try not to perish. “There’s no value to a sponsor if their adventurer comes back dead,” writes Blumenfeld.

That message might not play well with Norman Ollestad. Four months prior to Sabbag’s crash, another small plane had gone down, in the mountains north of Los Angeles. One person survived: 11-year-old Norman, whose descent of an icy mountain face would have done Joe Simpson proud. In Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival (Ecco, $26), Ollestad folds this disaster story into a moving father-son memoir that combines the flavor of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life with Simpson’s Touching the Void. Raised on surf wax in 1970s Malibu, Ollestad spent his childhood alternately ducking headlocks from his mom’s drunk boyfriend and adventuring with his high-spirited father, “Big Norm,” a former FBI agent who pushed his son to ski the steepest chutes and paddle into the highest waves. That early training forged some brass in the boy, which came in handy when the plane hit the mountain. Big Norm and the pilot died on impact, leaving Norman alone with Dad’s traumatized girlfriend, Sandra. Despite Norman’s best efforts, Sandra died during the descent, leaving the boy to find his way alone. That he did so is a testament to the lessons he learned from Big Norm: “I knew that what he had put me through saved my life.” Eventually, Ollestad comes to a deeper understanding of his father’s guiding philosophy: “There is more to life than just surviving it,” he writes. “Inside each turbulence there is a calm—a sliver of light buried in the darkness.” Sound advice, indeed, for troubled times.