Book Review: Les Stroud’s Will to Live

Oh hey! This is still a thing!

Sorry for the delay. I’ve been pretty busy for the last couple of weeks, so I haven’t had as much time to buckle down and read as I’d like. Well that, and Netflix just released Season 2 of Young Justice, so that ate up a bunch of my time too. Good news is, things are settling down, and I should have a slew of book reviews and maybe some other ramblings popping up over the course of March. At least, that’s the plan. Any of you guys want to hear me go on about cartoons or something?

Netflix binging aside, I don’t watch much TV. And on top of that, I watch even less Reality TV. There are certain exceptions- like Les Stroud’s Survivorman.

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As a kid, I was very involved with the Boy Scouts, and so I developed a love of camping and the outdoors (which sadly I don’t get to indulge nearly as often as I should). It makes sense that I’d enjoy a show about wilderness survival– but only when it’s done right. See, Survivor is a game show with smelly people, and Bear Grylls’ Man vs. Wild is fake as hell, but Les Stroud’s Survivorman is legit. It’s just one guy with a couple of cameras, dropped out in the middle of nowhere. And while I’ve never been in the kind of desperate situations Les throws himself into on a regular basis, I still remember enough from my Scouting days to recognize that Les knows what the hell he’s doing.

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So, since I’m a fan, I figured I’d check out Les Stroud’s book, Will To Live. Reading more non fiction may be the only New Year’s resolution I stick with this year. Will To Live is a hodgepodge of a book. In it, Les writes about famous stories of wilderness survival, like the harrowing tale of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 57. Between chapters, Stroud talks about his own experiences in similar locations.

To be honest, I was kind of hoping to read more about Stroud’s adventures. There’s only a few chapters about his own adventures, and an inordinate amount of words describe some of the dives he went on as the host of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Don’t get me wrong, sharks are cool, but I’d rather read about Les fishing for salmon with an improvised fishook. There are some neat little sidebars peppered throughout the book, however, offering survival tips. I actually learned a bit from this, including some pointers on how to butcher a moose (first step, move your camp to the carcass), and why eating bear/seal/dog liver is bad for you (vitamin A poisoning).

The chapters on other people’s survival stories are solid enough. It’s funny, though, as Les isn’t exactly an unbiased observer as he relates these stories. Instead, as a survival expert, he provides running commentary on what the people did right, and what they did wrong. To be fair, some of this is legitimate. For example, Stroud writes a chapter Chris McCandless, the guy who went out into the Alaskan wilderness unprepared and died as a result (and then was the subject of the overly romanticized book & movie, Into the Wild).

This slightly judgey tone is best encapsulated in a quote in Will To Live‘s epilogue:

“Juxtapose Mawson’s powerful leadership with the pathetic squabbling of the Karluk’s crew. Consider the unbending will to live and passion of people like Yossi and Nando with the near-apathetic acceptance of circumstances by the Stolpas.”

Really, I guess Les’ commentary is the whole point of the book. The guy’s an expert, after all. It’s kind of funny, though, as I’m personally guilty of doing the same thing. There have been times when I’ve watched Survivorman from the comfort of my couch, and I say “oh hey, Les shouldn’t do that.” It’s then a bit gratifying a bit later when Les (inevitably filthy and hungry and otherwise put through the wringer) says “I shouldn’t have done that.”

Will To Live probably won’t change your life. Les Stroud is a remarkable, skilled man- but I wouldn’t put writing foremost among his talents. This book was a light read, if a somewhat disjointed one. Pretty much on the level of the average “airport read,” to be honest.

But hey, if your plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness and you need to butcher a moose, you’ll at least be ready for it.

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