September 2007

So many ways to die: Despite grim topic, 'Death' proves compulsively readable

By Gail Binkly

FREE PRESS BOOK REVIEWSomewhere back in high school, Chris Becker missed the lecture in English class about not picking too broad a topic for your term paper. How else to explain the immensity of the subject he tackles in his new book, “Death in the West”?

This ambitious work, subtitled, “Fatal Stories from America’s Last Frontiers,” attempts to cover every type of demise possible – from backcountry accidents to animal attacks to death in underwater caves. Historic train wrecks are included, as are plane crashes, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, carbon- dioxide ventings, and attacks by serial killers. People die of thirst in the desert, they drown in flash floods, they are bitten by everything from brown recluse spiders to great white sharks. About the only type of death that doesn’t make the book, in fact, is that by natural causes.

“In writing this book, I struggled at times to come up with a reason for doing so,” Becker explains in the afterword. No kidding.

And yet, it must be admitted, the book is readable. Highly entertaining, as a matter of fact. For all that it lacks focus or purpose, it’s interesting, and not in a grim way. Becker doesn’t dwell on the morbid or the gruesome. He is mercifully brief, for instance, in relating the tales of a few of the West’s most horrendous (yet little-known) serial killers. His tone remains amazingly upbeat and chirpy throughout, considering some of the tragic stories he recounts.

One is the story of 19 students, teachers and guides with an Episcopalian high school who, in May 1986, set out to climb Oregon’s Mount Hood as part of the school’s graduation requirement. Despite unseasonably cold weather, all but six of the group marched grimly on toward the summit, only to encounter a blizzard. They built a shallow snow cave and hunkered down. The next morning, two brave souls ventured out and picked their way down the mountain to send for help.

The ensuing search found mostly “bodies stacked like cordwood,” Becker recounts. Two of the teens remaining on the mountain survived, along with the two who hiked out and the six who turned back. Nine died, one more than the number killed on Mount Everest in Jon Krakauer’s famous “Into Thin Air.”

Then there is the day in 1985 when a massive lightning storm hit central California. A 27-year-old man hiking in King’s Canyon took shelter under a rock slab resting across two boulders. He was found the next day by two more hikers who noticed that he seemed to be sitting unnaturally; he was, in fact, dead by a lightning strike.

Meanwhile, in Yosemite National Park nearby, nine intrepid climbers were mounting Half Dome, a steep granite summit. Four eventually turned back, but five ignored the lightning sizzling across the sky and kept on. Two were struck and killed instantly at the top. Three also were hit but survived with serious injuries that left them facing years of rehab and mental trauma.

There is an almost irresistible compulsion to read such stories and ask yourself: What would I have done differently in that situation? How would I have behaved so that I survived? Surely I would have been smarter, turned back at the first sign of lightning, found a better place to take shelter, taken more water into the desert — whatever.

It’s the looking for a way out, an alternate ending, that carries the reader through “Death in the West.” And Becker does lighten the somber subject by closing with a few stories about lucky survivors. He also observes that, despite the odds against them, most people in bad situations tend to come out alive. In the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 in San Francisco and Oakland, for instance, 62 died yet thousands more survived through heroic rescue efforts and amazing strokes of luck.

So many stories are related in such a fast-paced way in “Death in the West” that you sometimes long for fewer tales and a little more detail, a little more drama in the telling. It also inevitably pops into your mind that the vast majority of these deaths could have occurred just as easily in the East – there are train wrecks, earthquakes, even wild animals there, too.

But never mind. Sit back and enjoy the guilty pleasure of this slim volume. You’ll not only be glad you read it, you’ll be glad just to be alive.