March 15, 2012


Buried Alive! How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep under the Chilean Desert. By Elaine Scott. Clarion. $17.99.

Scandalous! 50 Shocking Events You Should Know About (so you can impress your friends). By Hallie Fryd. Zest Books. $13.99.

     Scary stuff happens every day in real life. “Reality” books for young people have to decide not only what to tell but also how to tell it. At their very best, as in Elaine Scott’s book about the disaster in Chile’s San José mine in August 2010, these works explain how and why bad things happen and how people rise to the occasion – or fail to do so. Scott has the benefit of a really amazing story, in which all 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground survived for 17 days without any contact with the outside world, and then persevered once contact was made with them and the slow extraction process began. For a total of 69 days, the longest time miners have ever spent buried beneath the earth and survived, this was a story less of super-heroism (although that is what books and movies are tempted to turn it into, and some have) than of dogged persistence. It is a tale of making the best of a horrible situation, of having faith in oneself and one’s companions, and of doing whatever is necessary to make it through a time whose horrors readers will barely be able to imagine. It is very much to Scott’s credit that she finds a way to help readers understand what the miners went through, thanks in part to her own limited experience of being inside a mine with lights extinguished: “There is no darkness like that. You are just wrapped in black.” But for the Chilean miners, the darkness – to which they were somewhat accustomed because of their profession – was only a small part of what they faced. A partial collapse, a blocked escape route with an improperly built ladder that was supposed to lead to the surface – these elements led to the miners, who were enormously lucky to have survived the initial collapse, finding themselves in an emergency refuge at the deepest part of the mine. But there was little ventilation and far, far too little food and water, and no way for them to contact anyone on the surface to say they were alive.

     And here is where there was heroism, spread among many of the men and focused in particular in their foreman, Luis (Don Lucho) Urzúa. His sheer determination and his leadership abilities made it possible for the men to make it through those first terrible 17 days, when no one knew if they would ever be found. Rationing the limited food from the beginning, having the men eat their meager meals together so everyone knew that everyone else received the same amount, preventing ill will between men who had some antipathy to each other because of their different jobs, creating teams with specific survival-related responsibilities, Don Lucho gave the men a sense of purpose that distracted them, as much as possible, from the very real chance that they would not be found in time and would all die almost half a mile beneath the earth. Scott relates their harrowing story, interweaving information on mining and mine rescues with details about the lives of individual miners and their families, effectively humanizing a frightening tale that is illustrated with some of the absolutely remarkable photos that the men themselves took during their weeks underground. Scott explains how contact was eventually made, and why it was so difficult to achieve, and then gets into information on how supplies were eventually gotten to the men, and how three different methods of reaching them had to be tried – with the one that succeeded being run by two American entrepreneurs who were so averse to being glorified or deemed heroic that they left the site as soon as their drill broke through to the rescue chamber. Buried Alive! is an absolutely amazing story on every level – but it is a real-world story, and Scott does not shrink from giving readers the far-from-uplifting aftermath of the rescue: although a mine owner not involved with this particular mine gave every rescued miner money and a motorcycle, 15 of the men ended up unemployed, five took up jobs selling vegetables or groceries, and four actually returned to mining, feeling they had no alternative. This is the real world on every level: elements of drama, events melding deep fear and horror with celebration, and then a mundane and in many ways unsatisfactory aftermath. Buried Alive! details all those parts of the miners’ story with remarkable cogency and skill.

     Far more superficial and celebrity-oriented, the (+++) Scandalous! is designed, as its subtitle says, to present brief information on a variety of “shocking events” from 1906 to 2000. Hallie Fryd gives basic facts on each event in a format that includes a newspaper-like opening called “The Scoop!” and a spiral-notebook-like list of “The Players,” plus photos and quotations and a “Why We Still Care” section. And for each event mentioned in brief, several others are discussed even more quickly. For example, the 1950 story of the Rosenbergs, who were executed for spying, includes “More Famous Spies” – Nathan Hale (1776), Aldrich Ames (1994) and Robert Hanssen (2001), each of them getting a short paragraph. The actual descriptions of the main events in the book are introduced with the words, “What Went Down,” in an attempt to somehow make the older information seem trendy. In fact, readers of this book who enjoy modern gossip will find that not much has changed in the past century or so: the earliest item is about architect Stanford White being shot dead by the wealthy husband of White’s former mistress. And many other items are of the tabloid-fodder variety as well: film star “Fatty” Arbuckle accused of murder (1921), Charlie Chaplin accused of being the father of the child of a woman who stalked him (1943), rock star Jerry Lee Lewis marries his under-age cousin (1958), the daughter of movie star Lana Turner stabs Turner’s boyfriend to death (also 1958), and so on. A line about the Turner incident is similar to ones that recur throughout the book: “The shocking and juicy story made headlines across the country.” More-recent scandals may be ones that readers already know, or have heard about in school or modern-history books: President Nixon resigning because of Watergate (1974), the sex-and-money scandal of televangelist Jim Bakker (1987), Pete Rose banned from baseball for gambling (1989), sexual harassment alleged against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (1991), Michael Jackson accused of molesting a 13-year-old boy (1993), President Clinton’s sex scandal and impeachment (1998), and more. The prose here tends to the overheated, obviously quite deliberately: “The trials that followed were a sensation from the start.” “The trial…turned into a dramatic showdown…” “The judge immediately closed the courtroom to the public and the press to keep the case under control.” “The congressional hearings made front-page news.” The suggestion of Scandalous! that these stories are fodder for impressing one’s friends is pretty thin – there is not really very much in the book that isn’t still being done by today’s mostly minor celebrities. There is some genuinely important material here, such as Upton Sinclair’s exposure of the meat-packing industry in his book The Jungle (1906), but it is unlikely to be as interesting to readers as the stories about Elvis Presley shaking his hips (1956) and the murders of rappers Biggie and Tupac (1996). The more things change on some levels, the more they remain the same on others – and one thing that has stayed the same, for the past century and far longer, is the sort of behavior given the once-over here…and many people’s continuing fascination with it.

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