rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2017-01-16 11:13 am

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King

A little girl gets lost alone in the woods. But for better or worse, no one is ever really alone…

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered that when she was nine years old.

Sounds like Cujo, doesn’t it? Sometimes bad things happen and it’s nobody’s fault, just the way of the world. Sometimes all the courage and willpower in the world isn’t enough to save you.

And sometimes it is.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Along with the Dark Tower series, this unique little book was my favorite of the new-to-me King books I read this year. While it has a lot of aspects that I like about King in addition to tropes I like in general, it’s different from his other books I’ve read (much pithier, for one thing) and a bit sui generis overall.

If you read survival memoirs, you’ll notice that many real people who got lost in the wild, in addition to their suffering and fear and physical breakdown, also had some kind of transcendent or spiritual experience. In between periods of misery and despair, they came to understand themselves, the natural world, and some kind of greater force in a way which felt deeply and lastingly important to them, though many say that no attempt at description can convey what it was really like. King delves into this phenomenon, giving the book an atmosphere at once delicate and powerful, full of realistic and suspenseful wilderness details balanced with a satisfyingly ambiguous exploration of that which is inherently unknowable and indescribable.

Nine-year-old Trisha goes with her mother and older brother for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail. When she steps off the path for a pee break, she realizes that she’s fallen behind and tries to take a short cut to catch up with them. One easy-to-make mistake leads to another, and Trisha is soon lost in the woods. Very, very lost.

That’s the entire book: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary girl. But Trisha is extraordinary too, in the way that anyone may become if they hit the exact right— or wrong— circumstances to bring out their full potential, whether to do right or wrong or simply endure.

If you’ve been following my King reviews and thinking, “Man, these books sound interesting, but so dark! Does he ever write anything that wouldn’t traumatize me if I read it?” Unless you’re very sensitive to children in danger, this could be the one.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is way more emotionally realistic (and so harrowing) than something like Hatchet, but it’s more like that than it is like Carrie, and it’s a lot less traumatizing, to me anyway, than Julie of the Wolves. (No rape, no deaths of sympathic animals.) It’s a character and theme-driven adventure/survival novel with ambiguous fantasy elements and some scary moments, not a horror novel. There’s some snippets of Trisha’s family freaking out, but they get little page time. Trisha suffers, but she’s also very resilient. [If you just want to know if she survives, rot13.com for the answer: Vg’f n pybfr pnyy ohg fur qbrf, naq irel gevhzcunagyl ng gung.]

Trisha has no special woodsy knowledge. Brian from Hatchet she’s not. Very unusually for a wilderness survival novel with a child hero, Trisha doesn’t do anything that a smart and resourceful but untrained kid couldn’t plausibly have done. The average kid wouldn’t have survived as long as she did, but that’s just statistics. She doesn’t build her own snowshoes, start fires with flint, befriend wolves, or trap rabbits. She eats stuff she finds, she makes a primitive lean-to from fallen branches, and she walks. And walks. No matter how bad things get, she doesn’t stop.

She does it all with nothing but a little bit of food and water, plus her Walkman, which picks up the broadcast of a Red Sox game in which her favorite baseball player, Tom Gordon, is playing. As she gets more and more lost, and is forced to reach deeper and deeper into her mind and body and soul to survive, she calls upon others to help her out: her memories of her family and her parentally disapproved-of friend Pepsi Robichaud, who could only be considered a bad influence if you’re nine and sheltered, her crush and idol Tom Gordon, and various conceptions of God or Godlike forces.

As time goes on, Tom Gordon becomes Trisha’s imaginary companion, becoming more and more of a presence as she goes from simply needing him more to outright hallucinating from hunger and illness. So another of King’s perennial themes comes into play, the relationship of the fan to the fan-object, and how real and important it can be, for better or worse. (You do not need to know or care about baseball to read this book. I don’t. Technical details are minimal, and King tells you everything you need to know.)

But there are other things in the woods which Trisha didn’t call, except in the sense that she attracted them by being there and vulnerable. Maybe it’s whatever animal predator happens to be around. Maybe it’s a specific animal that’s tracking her. Or maybe it’s supernatural. This part of the story is exceptionally well-done and comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

Back to God, King’s perennial question of “Does he exist and if so, where is he and why does he let bad things happen?” is prominent in this book. While lost, Trisha considers and possibly encounters multiple concepts of God. One is the mainstream idea of an interventionist God, whom Tom Gordon petitions with a gesture during games; if that God answers an athlete’s prayers to win, will He answer Trisha’s to live? Another is the Subaudible, which Trisha’s father explained to her when she asked him if he believed in God:

"It had electric heat, that house. Do you remember how the baseboard units would hum, even when they weren't heating? Even in the summer?"

Trisha had shaken her head.

"That's because you got used to it, but take my word, Trish, that sound was always there. Even in a house where there aren't any baseboard heaters, there are noises. The fridges goes on and off. The pipes thunk. The floors creak. The traffic goes by outside. We hear those things all the time, so most of the time we don't hear them at all. They become... Subaudible.

“I don't believe in any actual thinking God that marks the fall of every bird in Australia or every bug in India, a God that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die— I don't want to believe in a God who would deliberately create bad people and then deliberately send them to roast in a hell He created— but I believe there has to be something.

“Yeah, something. Some kind of insensate force for the good.

“I think there's a force that keeps drunken teenagers— most drunken teenagers—
from crashing their cars when they're coming home from the senior prom or their first big rock concert. That keeps most planes from crashing even when something goes wrong. Not all, just most. Hey, the fact that no one's used a nuclear weapon on actual living people since 1945 suggests there has to be something on our side."

Much of the book interrogates the idea of a Subaudible, particularly the question of just how conscious it is and if we're our own Subaudible. It also introduces the idea that the Subaudible may have a less benevolent counterpart. This is the God of the Lost, which may be the thing (if there is a thing) stalking Trisha through the woods. If so, is it malevolent or simply dangerous? Is it another insensate force, or conscious and concrete?

What will determine Trisha’s fate? God and the Devil? The Subaudible and the God of the Lost? No supernatural forces at all, just human beings and nature and Trisha herself? Or some combination of those?

I normally find religion the most boring topic on Earth. I did not find it boring in this book. It comes up naturally, and it’s in the form of open questions rather than preaching. I excerpted the part about the Subaudible because it’s easier to quote than to summarize, not because it’s presented as the One Truth.

The prose, which swings easily from King’s usual not-quite-stream-of-consciousness interspersed with bits of omniscient narration to some passages of striking beauty, doesn’t try to imitate a child’s speech. But though the language is adult, the content of Trisha’s inner world did mostly feel convicingly nine-year-old. That’s an age when many kids are thinking about God and why bad things happen. I’ve had children that age talk to me unprompted about those issues in simple language but using pretty sophisticated ideas. The Subaudible isn’t Trisha’s idea, it’s her father’s, but I believed that once he told her about it, she’d keep on chewing over it.

Cut for spoilers. I would not read these if you might read the book; they spoil the climax, which is quite beautifully orchestrated. Read more... )
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-07-11 04:43 pm

Plane Crash Nonfiction: Misc

Before this becomes all Stephen King, all the time, I thought I'd do some quick write-ups of nonfiction I read a while back. All of these are survival stories of plane crashes. I am putting them in order of quality, from best to worst.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. A meticulously researched and very readable account of the plane crash in a corn field fictionalized in Peter Weir's haunting movie Fearless. Gonzales (author of the fantastic Deep Survival) tells a gripping story of tragedy and heroism, of chance and courage and survival. I ended up skipping the chapter which gets into overly technical details of the exact cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash, but otherwise it's a very well-done book about a tragedy that could have been so much worse.

About a third of the passengers died; if not for the quick thinking of the pilots (including one flying as a passenger who got recruited to help out), probably everyone would have; if not for their decision to try to land in a cornfield at great risk to their lives, probably people would have been killed on the ground. There are also a number of individual rescues, plus a fascinating account of the emergency response on the ground.

The book has a haunting quality, not just because of the deaths but because of the strangeness of the incident; many passengers found themselves lost in a cornfield, with the plane invisible, as if they'd been transported to another world. And like all large-scale incidents, some questions will never be answered. One man remembers a woman with perfect clarity, but no woman matching that description was on the flight. This is the crash where a man climbed back into the burning, smoke-filled plane to save a baby, whom he miraculously found unhurt in a luggage compartment. I knew that part, but there's a heartbreaking sequel that I didn't know: the baby girl committed suicide at the age of fifteen. No one knows why, or if the crash had anything to do with it.

Highly recommended, if you like that kind of thing and you're not feeling emotionally fragile.

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness, by Brian Murphy is the story of Leon Crane, a WWII test pilot who was the sole survivor of a crash in Alaska, and made his way back to safety in 81 days despite virtually no supplies or wilderness training, through a combination of grit, intelligence, and some incredibly good luck involving where he crashed - even ten miles in any other direction might have led him to miss something without which he would have been very unlikely to survive.

This is biography, not memoir, and is somewhat hampered by Crane's reluctance to talk about what happened, apparently not due to trauma but to a combination of natural reticence, humility, and the sense that it was a profound experience which could not be put into words, or which words might spoil. So a lot of the story is reconstructed from second-hand accounts, yet gets into enough detail of what Crane might have been thinking and so forth that I would consider it creative nonfiction rather than strict nonfiction, as the next two books are.

If you like survival stories, you will like this. Despite some hiccups, it's generally well-written, clear, vivid, and engrossing. I would say it's good but not great.

My trade paperback omits dialogue marks apparently at random for the first few chapters; I assume this is an error, because if it's a writing choice it's inexplicable and distracting. Hopefully it is an error and your version will not have it.

Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is similar to Gonzales' book, but tells the story of a different crash. It's good but not as good; it also has a lot of descriptions of horrific, month-long deaths by burns that I found hard to read. It's also haunting in other ways: the stewardess who saved many people's lives got PTSD and never really recovered; she had to stop flying, and while she finally did get on a plane many years later, as a passenger, she never managed to appreciate the lives she saved, but only blamed herself for the people she couldn't save.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes. They seem to cause more and more severe PTSD in survivors than other types of accidents, perhaps because everyone but the pilots feel out of control and because survival is primarily about where you were sitting, not what you did. People don't seem to do well with terrible incidents that rub in how much chance is a factor. The freakish, unusual nature also seems to not help. (PTSD from car crashes occurs, but not that frequently. I think it's because drivers have some sense of control, and car crashes are relatively normal and common, unlike plane crashes.)

The Light of the Moon: Life, Death and the Birth of Advanced Trauma Life Support. A memoir by a man whose father, a doctor, crashed his small plane in a rural area at night with his entire family in it. His wife was killed, but his children survived with severe injuries. He was not happy with their treatment at the hospital they were initially transported to, and discovered that there were no nationwide guidelines for treating mass trauma victims. So he created and implemented them, nationwide, no doubt saving thousands and thousands of lives.

The author was a boy and unconscious after the crash, so he apparently interviewed his father to get an account of it. That part is very good. The rest of the book… Well, he's clearly not a pro author. There's endless accounts of the search for the plane which are sometimes interesting and sometimes incredibly tedious. His account of his own research as an adult into what happened is generally awful - he literally has pages and pages detailing how he googled stuff.

The parts I was really curious about - his and his family's recovery, and how his father managed to implement medical protocols nationwide - are mainly skipped over. He says that his nine-year-old brother lost ALL his memory of everything that happened before the crash. If he means his entire life, WOW do I want to hear about that and how he coped - he would have never remembered his mother, for instance. But since the author says nothing more about it, I assume it was a poorly worded sentence and he means that his brother had some degree of anteretrograde amnesia - maybe days, maybe even months - but not his whole life.

Interesting story, not told too well. Bad or flawed memoirs typically have this issue of too much filler and a failure to distinguish between what the author and reader is interested in.