2 Words that describe the book: Survival memoir
3 Settings where it took place or characters you met:
- Setting: late 1970s California and Mexico
- Norman Ollestad Jr.—The author had a unique upbringing in the uninhibited and freedom-loving surf culture of the 1970s. (He lived on Topanga Beach.) At age 1, his father strapped him to his back and took him surfing (see photo at right). This was the start of a childhood filled with extreme sports. Norman was continually pushed by his father to surf, play hockey and ski at levels that were both frightening and somewhat dangerous. Yet this background gave Norman a unique mindframe and skills that ended up helping him to survive a plane crash that killed his father, his father’s girlfriend and the plane’s pilot. Norman was only 11 at the time of the crash.
- Norman Ollestad Sr.—A fearless man with a taste for adventure, Norman Ollestad was many things: a former FBI agent who wrote a book exposing the weaknesses of the agency, a successful lawyer, and a devoted father who wanted to make sure his son (who he affectionately called “Boy Wonder”) experienced the exhilaration and beauty of living life fully by pursuing extreme sports like powder skiing and surfing.
- I liked the trip to Mexico that father and son take shortly before the plane crash. In many ways, it acts as a “coming of age” journey for young Norman. This extended sequence is (in some ways) more the heart of the book than the actual plane crash.
- I disliked how Ollestad structured the book. The chapters alternate between his childhood and his struggle for survival on the mountain after the plane crash. This technique for telling the story didn’t work for me. I felt like I kept losing the “momentum” of the survival aspect of the story. The book might have worked better if it had been told in chronological order.
- I disliked that I never got a real grip on the survival story. I’m not sure if it was Ollestad’s writing or my unfamiliarity with some of the terms he used, but I never felt that sense of “I’m right there” you get with some survival stories (such as Jon Krakauer’s excellent Into Thin Air.)
- I liked the ending where Ollestad writes about his grown-up assessment of his father and his own struggle to find the right amount to push his own son. In many ways, Norman might not have survived if his father hadn’t raised him the way he did. But in other ways, it seems almost negligent or cruel the pressure his father put on him and the situations he was forced to experience.
I’m giving the book 3 stars. I really wanted to like it more than I did. I’m a big fan of real-life survival stories, but this one just didn’t do it for me. I think much of it was due to the writing. Although he has a gripping story to tell, I think Ollestad might have benefited from having a co-writer that could have helped him tell his story better. I want to thank Jill from Rhapsody in Books for this link to a video about the book that helped everything come into better focus for me. It includes a clip of Norman at age 11 right after his accident and footage from the Topanga Beach scene, which seems like quite an interesting place to grow up. Surprisingly enough, the most interesting part of the book for me was the father-son relationship and the unique way Ollestad was raised.