The Rescue of Belle & Sundance: One Town’s Incredible Race to Save Two Abandoned Horses. By Birgit Stutz and Lawrence Scanlan. Da Capo. $22.
“Unsinkable”: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic. By Daniel Allen Butler. Da Capo. $16.
Heartrending and heartstopping, The Rescue of Belle & Sundance is one of those triumph-against-all-odds tales showing that we humans can rise above our frequently quarrelsome and difficult nature and pull together to help those in need. The ones in need here are two horses that were abandoned by their owner in the Canadian Rockies in early fall of 2008. There is plenty to eat on the mountainside in autumn, but the Canadian winter comes early and brutally, and the horses were soon freezing and starving. Then snowmobilers found them – and soon, people approached the animals bringing both hay and a gun, the first in case the horses could be saved and the second in case they could not. The story told by Birgit Stutz and Lawrence Scanlan is of the immense difficulties that volunteers went through to get the horses safely down off the mountain – a feat eventually accomplished, with entirely appropriate and heartwarming timing, just before Christmas. The horses had trampled the snow around themselves into a flat area surrounded by drifts through which they could not move – effectively imprisoning themselves without food in an area where temperatures fall to 40 degrees below zero and natural predators abound. The rescuers spent a week digging a six-foot-deep, three-foot-wide passage more than half a mile long through the snow, so the horses could get away from the area where they were trapped and walk to safety – a total distance of 18 miles. Throw in an avalanche threat and the ever-present possibilities that the weather might get even worse or the horses could become too weak to walk even if the dig (called the “Tunnel of Freedom”) could be completed in time, and you have all the makings of an excitingly hopeful, danger-filled tale. Stutz and Scanlan tell it well, mixing first-person information (Stutz participated in the rescue) with profiles of the volunteer rescuers and snapshots of the work done meticulously day after day. There are real snapshots, too: more than 30 photos of the horses, the humans who helped save them, and the frozen area where the whole drama took place. Animal lovers who enjoy a story filled with tear-jerking moments (for example, the horses had to eat each other’s tails to stay alive) will get a great deal of restorative emotion, and maybe a good cry, out of The Rescue of Belle & Sundance, although the book may be somewhat too overdone and melodramatic for more-casual readers.
The story of the sinking of the Titanic is a rescue tale as well – the Carpathia saved more than 700 Titanic passengers – but the Titanic tale is almost always told as one of disaster and perhaps engineering overreaching (although it could as easily be done as a story confirming the “black swan theory,” since the number of passengers who have died because of ship collisions with Atlantic icebergs since the Titanic went down is exactly zero). Daniel Allen Butler’s 1998 “Unsinkable,” with quotation marks in the title, has now been reissued to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster, which occurred on April 15, 1912. The book tends to fall into the “overreaching” approach to the sinking – hence the Biblical quotations as chapter headings. It includes eight pages of photos of the ship and some of its officers, and a new postscript and forward that together provide information on the latest findings and theories about the Titanic. As with so much “major disaster” writing, Butler’s book focuses on individual stories and tells the overarching tale largely through the accumulation of details from many people’s personal experiences. Sometimes Butler overdoes this, trying to get into people’s minds: “Up on the bridge Captain Smith seethed with a frustration similar to Phillips’s as he continued to stare at the light on the horizon, so tantalizingly close.” But at other times, his focus on detail provides fascinating bits of information: “Every now and then [on the day the voyage began] a tremendous blast would issue forth from the Titanic’s great steam whistles, rattling windows for miles around, the stentorian tones (the whistles were pitched at C3) letting one and all know that this was a sailing day.” The basic story of the Titanic is now so well known that few readers will find anything new or surprising in Butler’s book, but his combination of intimate detail, accurate narration and effective personalization of the tragedy remains as compelling today as at the time of the book’s original release.