on 30 May 2012
I found this book absolutely absorbing and very hard to put down, despite some shortcomings.
I bought it because I wanted to know how it was possible for someone to fall out of an aeroplane at 17,000 feet and survive. To know how it felt, one moment to be sitting in a plane, a teenager beside your mother, thinking about Christmas, and almost the next to find yourself alone on the ground, in dense rain forest, the sole survivor of a crash yet practically unhurt.
It never gave me a satisfactory answer to the first question, mainly because the disaster was never properly investigated from a technical point of view. A series of dignitaries, including a government minister, appear and quickly disappear, desperately keen to gloss over the fact that the airline was a shambles and the plane a flying deathtrap. Julianne herself does not appear to have become too engrossed in exactly how it happened. She throws out a suggestion that some commentator produced that because she was still strapped in to the end seat of an otherwise empty detached three-seat section, that part may have achieved the same kind of twirling 'flight' as a sycamore seed, slowing what should have been a headlong plunge to disaster -- but she doesn't say whether she believes it. Possibly it appeals to her as a naturalist.
Julianne does explain how she managed to survive, alone, as a 17-year-old, in the uninhabited rainforest. It was entirely due to having grown up as the only child of two naturalists, from her earliest days spending part of her year in a camp on the Amazon. This unusual upbringing made her physically very able and very attuned to her surroundings. But at the same time it made her unworldly and, though very bright, young for her years. Which meant she was utterly unprepared for and unable to deal with the media circus which resulted when she emerged alive from the jungle.
What kept me riveted to this book, which can be, as other reviewers have pointed out, pretty heavy going, was what happened next. Julianne describes her growing up with a sort of rosy glow of contentment. Admittedly, she wrote the book many years later, and she does concede that her upbringing was very different from those of her schoolfriends. But in fact this was a truly dysfunctional family: her German academic father makes dad Von Trapp seem like a cuddly liberal with a laid-back view of child-rearing. This was all taking place in the 1970s, but had it been in the present day in certain London Boroughs, Julianne could well have been taken into care. For example, when her father first hears that the flight is missing, he doesn't worry, because he knows he forbade her and her mother to get on it -- thus they couldn't have done, could they?
In every way, it appears miraculous that Julianne survived both the crash and the aftermath. No one appears to have offered any formal counselling at the time, and her father left her entirely alone, an immature 17, to deal with the huge public interest in her, not just from the media -- paparazzi included -- but basically from the whole world. They say 'the children of lovers are orphans' and certainly her parents seem to have been very wrapped up in each other, with her wider family both far away and uninvolved. Her father appears to have been obsessed with the idea, possibly justified, that his wife may have survived the crash but died of survivable injuries on the ground because she wasn't found until too late -- and nothing about the chaotic official search and body recovery mission dispels this fear...
Julianne appears to have coped largely by blocking out the bad memories, not addressing the unanswered questions and purposefully getting on with her life. Despite many requests from publishers worldwide to tell her story, she has done so only now for two reasons: she was approached by film-maker Werner Herzog, who himself only missed taking the flight with his film crew because it was full, to commemorate the anniversary with a documentary, and because she wants to publicise what she is doing now. Plus her father is now dead.
Neither her German-English translator nor her book editor (or ghost-writer) does her any favours: there is some very un-English phrasing and the constant jumping about between two or three different periods in the past and the present day is clunky and disconcerting. In addition, the bit about her present activities -- she is trying to enshrine her parents' research activities and their Amazonian base in a national park -- is probably the least interesting for the reader, though I can see why Julianne would have wanted passionately for it to be there, and at length.
This is certainly not escapism, and it won't make you feel better in a plane in a thunderstorm, but it's a page-turner in its way. Persevere -- it's worth it.