Review: 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin

Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: November 2015
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 269 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Intriguing subject matter
Read If You: Like stories about people who overcome the impossible
Rating★★★★
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

Since reading In the Heart of the Sea, I’ve been interested in reading more stories about 19th century sea exploration and survival tales. 438 Days describes one man’s survival lost at sea for over a year. This story, however, differs from the historical stories in which I might find interest. The lost seaman is an El Salvadorian living in Mexico. Salvador Alvarenga became lost after a storm in November 2013. I’m astonished that, in spite of all our technological advances, the world remains so vast that we can still lose entire planes (let alone one man in a little boat) and never find them.

My heart broke for Ezequiel Córdoba, a young man who accompanies Alvarenga at the last minute. He has little experience on the expansive ocean, which causes him a great more suffering than Alvarenga initially experiences. An anecdote from their third week at sea demonstrates the relationship between the two:

Day 23: Córdoba was in worse shape. He pleaded with Alvarenga, “Oranges, bring me oranges.” Alvarenga stood above the prone man and assured him food was close. “Okay, I am going to the store, I will see if it is open, to bring you some food,” he said with conviction as he pointed to the horizon. “I will get tamales, oranges and shrimp.” Alvarenga strode with confidence for the few seconds it took to cross the boat. After waiting for five minutes in silence, he strode back with bad news. “The store is closed, but don’t worry, they open in an hour and they have fresh tortillas.” To his surprise, the scheme worked. Córdoba stopped moaning and fell asleep. The game of visiting the store bought Alvarenga a few hours of respite from t he cloud of fear that had seize Córdoba’s mind and rarely loosened its grip on the despairing young fisherman. (92-93)

This anecdote also illustrates an aspect of the book I appreciated. Franklin interviewed experts on various subjects related to Alvarenga’s journey. After relaying the story shared above, Franklin quotes Dr. John Leach, a “senior research fellow in survival psychology”. Leach explains why the shop exercise was beneficial to both Córdoba and Alvarenga’s mental health. Córdoba has something to look forward to and Alvarenga has “an automatic task […] a job that gives meaning to your existence” (94) to complete. There are numerous places where Alvarenga’s journey is explained and supplemented by experts in relevant fields, or by those who interact with Alvarenga.

Alvarenga’s survival techniques impressed me. Likely few other men would have been able to survive in his position, without his knowledge. What most surprised me was how he could survive on raw foods, eating creatures like fish and birds whole and drinking turtle blood. I got really stressed on those rare occasions when he would spot a boat. Like, it’s only day 126, you know he’s not going to be rescued (131)!

Because of In the Heart of the Sea, my mind did wander a bit towards the concept of cannibalism, but it was not something I really wanted to dwell, especially given the modern context of this story. The word is mentioned once in the book (about the media frenzy as Alvarenga’s story emerges). Alvarenga makes peace with Córdoba’s mother, but Córdoba’s brothers are unimpressed with Alvarenga’s explanation (253). I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in their position. I discovered while looking for news updates that Córdoba’s family filed legal action against Alvarenga, suing for $1 million, shortly after the book was published.

Towards the end of the book, I began to feel a little seasick myself. I wasn’t feeling so great and reading this book just made my head spin more! It’s a bit like trying to fathom the size of the universe – trying to imagine how Alvarenga survived 438 days lost in a tiny boat, 320 of those days alone. I don’t suppose I would survive a week. Franklin does a good job of illustrating how Alvarenga managed his time and what kind of headspace he strove for (and sometimes lost).

A cynic might say otherwise, but I’m impressed that Alvarenga chose to tell his story with a journalist who could share that story with the world. I did ponder the connection was between Alvarenga and Franklin (who is the sole author credited for the book). In the author’s afterword, Franklin asks the question I wondered all along – “What else [aside from financial benefits] motivated him to spend hour after hour with me, telling all the details of his story?” Franklin quotes Alvarenga’s answer at length, but here is the gist of it:

I suffered so much and for so long. Maybe if people read this they will realize that if I can make it, they can make it. Many people suffer only because of what happens in their head; I was also physically being tortured. I had no food. No water. If I can make it so can you. If one depressed person avoids committing suicide then the book is a success. (261) 

The Bottom Line: A fascinating tale of survival and resilience, unlike any other. Recommended for fans of narrative non-fiction.

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