Survival stories get lots of play in pop culture – they’re everywhere on screens and on our shelves. Why do we love to read about survivors? Is it because we feel safer because, in learning from their experience, we gain new knowledge that might help us survive in the event of a kidnapping/desert island stranding/zombie apocalypse? If, by chance, your only experience with survival stories was with one of our first two contenders in the Battle for Survival – Flight by Sherman Alexie and Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith – you’d come away with some pretty warped views of what skills you might need to save your life, as both stories are eminently weird, and for the right readers, wonderful. They have both been compared positively to the Kurt Vonnegut classic, Slaughterhouse Five, so if that sounds up your alley, then have we got some book recommendations for you!
Grasshopper Jungle | Andrew Smith
This is a story of apocalyptic survival in small-town Iowa, which through a series of unlikely events, becomes overrun by a plague of oversized praying mantises, whose only mission in life is to eat and breed… and their food is humans! Our extremely profane and sexually-preoccupied narrator, Austin, uses his skills and a newly discovered bunker, to save himself and his friends from imminent destruction.
The story is full of bizarrely black humor, and surreal settings of destruction and survival. Ultimately, the survival of the world rests on the shoulders of three average teens… who become exceptional through the application of apocalyptic circumstances. It contains all the components one would expect to find in a typical sci-fi survival tale, but through the lens of an irreverent teen narrator, scenes that might otherwise be deathly serious become hilariously funny. There’s a lightness and a grossness to the story that make it refreshing while also making you want to wash your hands when you put the book down. On the bright side, you’ll only put it down once, because the pacing is rocket-ship fast. Weaknesses include an overwhelming amount of references to various bodily fluids in the book, and periodic strange historical tangents that make you flip back to see if you missed a segue (you didn’t). In the end, the bugs win. Even though our heroes discover the bug’s Achilles heel (hint: another bodily fluid!), the world is too overrun for them to save it, so they hole up in the bunker and start the process of re-populating the world.
Flight | Sherman Alexie
If you’ve read Sherman Alexie’s classic, Diary of a Part-Time Indian, you know he’s adept at writing perfectly flawed, yet loveable, protagonists. He takes this to a whole new level in Flight, the story of an Indian/Irish teen – Zits – who’s been in and out of foster homes and prison, and at the beginning of the story is manipulated into helping with a bank robbery that goes wrong, leaving him shot in the head. And that’s the normal part of the story. Now, things start to get weird, because instead of seeing his life flash before his eyes, Zits becomes a passenger as he embodies different people throughout history. Rather than embodying significant figures, instead he’s a young boy in an Indian community celebrating their victory over the bodies of enemy troops, and the next minute, he’s a legendary Indian tracker, about to take part in the slaughter of everyone in an Indian village. But it’s not just distant history – once he’s a crooked FBI agent, and another a dying drunk homeless Indian in an alley who turns out to be Zits’s father. With each of these, Zits is powerless to affect change, and is only able to watch in frustration or horror as his hosts engage in their destiny.
While at first glance, this story might not seem like a survival story – you quickly learn that Zits is in a fight for his own survival from the circumstances of his life. With each jump through time, Zits is a passenger in the body of another person who’s struggling for their own survival and identity. In the end, Zits is saved by his own realization of the death awaiting him at the end of his current path, and by a savior in the form of a badly-shaken police officer who can’t stand to see another child die from a neglectful world. At the conclusion, Zits gets a family, a home, love, and his name.
Both stories share so many similarities – loveable teenage boy narrators, cruel life circumstances, vastly insurmountable improbable crises, and pretty bow endings (although applied crookedly). But if a customer asked me for the next survival tale they should read, I would hand them Grasshopper Jungle because it’s true to the genre. While Flight is equally wonderful, it’s not as recognizable as a survival tale.
So for being truest to form in this battle, and for taking an old genre and making it new (and very sticky) again – it’s Grasshopper Jungle for the win.