White-knuckle account of a terrifying 1984 plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and its improbable reverberations in the lives of four survivors.
National Magazine Award–winning journalist Shaben’s debut has at its center a stranger-than-fiction, cinematic sequence: the injured survivors—the pilot, a politician, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and his prisoner, a fugitive drifter—hanging on to life together overnight in subzero temperatures. The politician, Larry Shaben, Canada’s first Muslim Cabinet minister, was the author’s father. Fortunately, this personal connection only amplifies Shaben’s determination to reconstruct the incident and its aftermath from all four survivors’ perspectives. She places the crash in the context of the shaky standards of the commuter air industry. Her meticulous account first focuses on the survivors’ back stories: She portrays the pilot as well-meaning but guilty of error under pressure (including flying into bad weather with no co-pilot and incomplete instrumentation). The most compelling character arc is that of the drifter, who rescued his captor from the wreckage and was instrumental in keeping the others alive. He was hailed as a hero, yet his life continued on a dark downward spiral, while the cop he saved left the force for a spiritual quest. On top of all this, Shaben also follows the formidable rescue effort quickly mounted by the hardy rural Canadians. Though the book’s propulsive pace slackens in the final sections, dealing with the crash’s aftermath—blame was showered on both the airline’s corner-cutting and on the luckless young pilot, who was frank about his errors and faced a long redemption—this is a complex, chilling narrative rendered with depth and precision, engaged in both its characters and the larger social moment (the crash led to recommendations for commuter air reform, not always followed in the years since).
A worthy addition to the canon of extreme-survival nonfiction.