Live and Let Die

Book Bag: How to Survive—Five Stories About Unlikely Survivors

Claire Cameron, the author of the new novel The Bear, picks her favorite stories about unlikely survivors.

Phil Ashley

Why do some people survive traumatic events when others don’t? As we read tales about survivors traversing scorched landscapes, floating in the open sea or arriving alone in foreign lands, we often ask ourselves: Would I survive? Laurence Gonzalez in his book Deep Survival speculates that while 90 percent of people freeze or panic in threatening situations, there are a special 10 percent who are able to keep calm and take action. They are the ones who make the right decisions to stay alive and thrive. But who are these people? And, more importantly, are you one of them? Many of my favorite survivors in fiction show that it may not be the most muscled, macho or mighty people who pull through. A strong mind and body aren’t always enough. You might also need a resilient heart.

Here are five of my favorite books about unlikely survivors:

We Need New Names

by NoViolet Bulawayo

This novel tells the story Darling. At the start, she is 10 years old living in Zimbabwe. Her home is destroyed by the paramilitary, her school closed, her family fractured, but it’s—perhaps unsurprisingly—the move to Detroit that puts Darling to the test. Surviving the cultural and social dislocation is possible as she uses her past as a source of emotional strength. Told in Darling’s voice, she’ll show you that courage and vitality drip like guava juice from the chin.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

The feat of surviving is directly related to the capacity of the survivor. Christopher John Francis Boone is a teenage “mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.” When he finds the body a murdered poodle, his investigation leads him on a journey. While the train from Swindon to London is a challenge for anyone, it becomes life threatening for Christopher. A love for pets and parents give him the inner strength to prevail, as does his prowess on the A-level math examine (my math grades mark me as doomed).

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan

Grace Winter is a widow who, after surviving a shipwreck and a long stint in a lifeboat, needs to save herself from the gallows. Rogan allows her female survivor to be shrewd, manipulative and—the most risky thing of all—somewhat unlikeable. Few others who wear petticoats in lifeboats get the chance to do what Grace attempts: save her own life.

The Road

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by Cormac McCarthy

It’s easy to think of a kid as vulnerable and helpless. The unnamed son in The Road feels completely dependent on his father’s protection. Without delving into spoilers, what if a trait like vulnerability can also be a source of strength? To be vulnerable is to also be open and kids can show a greater ability to adapt to change. Could this be the point where McCarthy’s and Whitney Houston’s philosophies converge? Children are our future.


by Marilyn Robinson

Published in 1980, this one of my favorite character driven novels set in a hard mountain town of Fingerbone, Idaho, where a life alone is brutish and short. Ruth and Lucille are sisters. When they are left parentless a series of people try to help, but it becomes clear that finding a place among other people is a question that each has to answer on her own. The body needs food, warmth and water, but your heart needs more.