Book Review: 438 Days

438 Days - Cover Image

Did you have a bad day? Are you feeling totally crushed? If so, now is the perfect time to pick up 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea. No matter what you’re going through, I promise this book will make you feel better.

Written by Jonathan Franklin, 438 Days chronicles the incredible story of fisherman Salvador Alvarenga. On November 17, 2012, Captain Alvarenga and his crewmate Ezequiel Córdoba were fishing 20 miles off the coast of Mexico when they were caught in a 5-day storm. The storm destroyed their motor and most of their survival gear, sweeping both men far into the Pacific Ocean. Search parties turned up nothing. Everybody was sure they’d died – until Alvarenga showed up on a mostly deserted island 7000 miles away nearly 14 months later.

A first glance, it seems like an unbelievable tale – and even Franklin was skeptical at first. But he was soon convinced, and he does an incredible job of bringing Alvarenga’s story to life in 438 Days.

I’ll be honest: I loved 438 Days and could barely put it down. Even knowing that Alvarenga would survive his journey and Córdoba would not, I was totally enthralled. Sure, part of that had to do with just how incredible Alvarenga’s tale is: if a man survives a 7000 mile journey on his own, you know it’s going to be a good story.

But Franklin deserves the credit for the incredible amount of research that he put into his book. In some ways, Franklin got incredibly lucky. Because Alvarenga is illiterate and doesn’t normally write things down, he possesses an incredible memory. So he was able to provide Franklin with details that many of us might not have remembered. These details help bring Alvarenga’s journey vividly to life. Still, Franklin also spent hundreds of hours interviewing experts from survival psychologists to climatologists, research which he seamlessly integrates into the book. These observations both convince the reader that Alvarenga’s story is true and show us how Alvarenga was able to survive this journey…and why most of us probably would not have. Alvarenga is one in a billion because he was able to survive both physically and mentally.

I was particularly appreciative of 438 Days‘ focus on the mental health aspect of Alvarenga’s journey. Ultimately, a major reason for Córdoba’s tragic death was his inability to maintain his sanity. In contrast, Alvarenga was able to survive one of the world’s harshest mental environments: being totally and utterly alone. 438 Days shows us how Alvarenga was able to do that – and these techniques are applicable to our daily lives in a way that drinking turtle blood, for example, is not.

438 Days also gives a unique insight into man’s relationship with the ocean. Franklin describes 438 Days as “the story of a love affair between the man and his ocean,” and indeed, it’s fascinating to see for example that Alvarenga never explicitly blames the ocean for his fate and that Alvarenga continues to fish even after what can only be described as a traumatic, harrowing ordeal. In addition, 438 Days gives a great deal of insight into the larger relationship between man and his environment. For example, there’s a theme of trash as treasure in the book, as Alvarenga would not have survived had he not been able to reuse the mountains of man made debris floating around him.

Of course, I didn’t love absolutely everything about 438 Days. For one thing, the story of Alvarenga’s journey is bookended by how he acted before and after his ordeal. Naturally, it’s interesting to see just how dramatically this experience changed him. That said, the trip in between was so intense that it overshadowed what I knew about Alvarenga before. It would have been more powerful had Franklin included Alvarenga’s life prior to leaving Mexico in the context of the trip instead of separating the three eras.

Also, in 438 Days, Franklin notes where in the ocean Alvarenga was and when he had these experiences. While Alvarenga has an exceptional memory and Franklin confirmed Alvarenga’s observations about different areas of the ocean with experts, these dates and places are at best guessed. This is explained at the end of the book, but Franklin should have explained how he was estimating it earlier. I kept wondering how he knew about the times and places, which pulled me out of the tale. This was especially true given the fact that Franklin constantly spoke of how Alvarenga just missed hitting a myriad of inhabited places during his trip.

But these are just two tiny complaints about a book that frankly was the best nonfiction work I’ve read in a long time. 438 Days is a fascinating tale of a man who got lost in a way we didn’t realize people still could. It’s a meditation on man’s relationships – with fate, with God, with the environment, with progress. But most of all, it’s a tale of survival. Alvarenga wanted to tell his story to stop people from committing suicide. Because he believes that if he could survive what he did, we can survive anything that we go through.

So read this book on the bad days, when you feel like you just can’t do it anymore. Read this book when you need a reminder that you are strong. Read this book to remember that you can survive anything. Because Alvarenga is living proof of that fact – and Jonathan Franklin wrote the book to prove it.

Liked this? Check out our interview with 438 Days‘ author, Jonathan Franklin, and buy the book here!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

Did you have a bad day? Are you feeling totally crushed? If so, now is the perfect time to pick up 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea. No matter what you’re going through, I promise this book will make you feel better.

Written by Jonathan Franklin, 438 Days chronicles the incredible story of fisherman Salvador Alvarenga. On November 17, 2012, Captain Alvarenga and his crewmate Ezequiel Córdoba were fishing 20 miles off the coast of Mexico when they were caught in a 5-day storm. The storm destroyed their motor and most of their survival gear, sweeping both men far into the Pacific Ocean. Search parties turned up nothing. Everybody was sure they’d died – until Alvarenga showed up on a mostly deserted island 7000 miles away nearly 14 months later.

A first glance, it seems like an unbelievable tale – and even Franklin was skeptical at first. But he was soon convinced, and he does an incredible job of bringing Alvarenga’s story to life in 438 Days.

I’ll be honest: I loved 438 Days and could barely put it down. Even knowing that Alvarenga would survive his journey and Córdoba would not, I was totally enthralled. Sure, part of that had to do with just how incredible Alvarenga’s tale is: if a man survives a 7000 mile journey on his own, you know it’s going to be a good story.

But Franklin deserves the credit for the incredible amount of research that he put into his book. In some ways, Franklin got incredibly lucky. Because Alvarenga is illiterate and doesn’t normally write things down, he possesses an incredible memory. So he was able to provide Franklin with details that many of us might not have remembered. These details help bring Alvarenga’s journey vividly to life. Still, Franklin also spent hundreds of hours interviewing experts from survival psychologists to climatologists, research which he seamlessly integrates into the book. These observations both convince the reader that Alvarenga’s story is true and show us how Alvarenga was able to survive this journey…and why most of us probably would not have. Alvarenga is one in a billion because he was able to survive both physically and mentally.

I was particularly appreciative of 438 Days‘ focus on the mental health aspect of Alvarenga’s journey. Ultimately, a major reason for Córdoba’s tragic death was his inability to maintain his sanity. In contrast, Alvarenga was able to survive one of the world’s harshest mental environments: being totally and utterly alone. 438 Days shows us how Alvarenga was able to do that – and these techniques are applicable to our daily lives in a way that drinking turtle blood, for example, is not.

438 Days also gives a unique insight into man’s relationship with the ocean. Franklin describes 438 Days as “the story of a love affair between the man and his ocean,” and indeed, it’s fascinating to see for example that Alvarenga never explicitly blames the ocean for his fate and that Alvarenga continues to fish even after what can only be described as a traumatic, harrowing ordeal. In addition, 438 Days gives a great deal of insight into the larger relationship between man and his environment. For example, there’s a theme of trash as treasure in the book, as Alvarenga would not have survived had he not been able to reuse the mountains of man made debris floating around him.

Of course, I didn’t love absolutely everything about 438 Days. For one thing, the story of Alvarenga’s journey is bookended by how he acted before and after his ordeal. Naturally, it’s interesting to see just how dramatically this experience changed him. That said, the trip in between was so intense that it overshadowed what I knew about Alvarenga before. It would have been more powerful had Franklin included Alvarenga’s life prior to leaving Mexico in the context of the trip instead of separating the three eras.

Also, in 438 Days, Franklin notes where in the ocean Alvarenga was and when he had these experiences. While Alvarenga has an exceptional memory and Franklin confirmed Alvarenga’s observations about different areas of the ocean with experts, these dates and places are at best guessed. This is explained at the end of the book, but Franklin should have explained how he was estimating it earlier. I kept wondering how he knew about the times and places, which pulled me out of the tale. This was especially true given the fact that Franklin constantly spoke of how Alvarenga just missed hitting a myriad of inhabited places during his trip.

But these are just two tiny complaints about a book that frankly was the best nonfiction work I’ve read in a long time. 438 Days is a fascinating tale of a man who got lost in a way we didn’t realize people still could. It’s a meditation on man’s relationships – with fate, with God, with the environment, with progress. But most of all, it’s a tale of survival. Alvarenga wanted to tell his story to stop people from committing suicide. Because he believes that if he could survive what he did, we can survive anything that we go through.

So read this book on the bad days, when you feel like you just can’t do it anymore. Read this book when you need a reminder that you are strong. Read this book to remember that you can survive anything. Because Alvarenga is living proof of that fact – and Jonathan Franklin wrote the book to prove it.

Liked this? Check out our interview with 438 Days‘ author, Jonathan Franklin, and buy the book here!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

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