In November 2012, fisherman José Salvador Alvarenga found himself stranded aboard a 24-foot boat off the coast of Mexico with a broken motor, dwindling supplies and a young crewmate that was well beyond incompetent. 438 days later, famished, dehydrated, debilitated, and on the verge of death, Alvarenga washed ashore on a secluded island that was inhabited by a few indigenous people of the Marshall Islands. Interestingly enough, author Jonathan Franklin, a reporter for The Guardian and a documentarian for The New York Times, named his second-hand account of Alvarenga’s unbelievable journey 438 Days. Through extensive interviews with Alvarenga and collaboration with experts in the fields of survival, psychology and oceanography, Franklin delivers an account that not only corroborates Alvarenga’s story of survival to readers, but leaves them in awe.
November of 2012 was just the beginning of Alvarenga’s ordeal as he and his crewmate, Ezequiel Cordoba, were pulled farther from the Mexican shore by the currents and storms of the Pacific. With the days passing and the Pacific stretching before their eyes, Alvarenga and Cordoba saw no hope of rescue and were forced into survival mode. As one of the “sharkers," a nickname Alvarenga and his more experienced fisherman friends had adopted for themselves, Alvarenga was determined to survive. With over a decade of experience, Alvarenga was forced to catch fish, sea turtles, and birds with his bare hands in order to provide for himself and his young crewmate. Alvarenga not only maintained Cordoba’s physical state, but his mental state as well. Cordoba, inexperienced and doomed by a prophecy of his own death, was beginning to succumb to the chilling effects of malnourishment, dehydration and a deteriorating mental state. Four months into the tormenting journey, Cordoba was dead. He died young, as prisoner of his own mind. Alvarenga, now alone, was forced to fend for himself and to uphold his own psychological state for the remainder of the 438-day journey. Just as Alvarenga was beginning to lose feeling in his legs and his determination to survive was dwindling, he washed ashore a small island in the Pacific. Unable to walk, he crawled until a local couple saw him. The months that followed were filled with hospital stays, rehabilitation, journalists, interviews and a reunion with the family that he had not seen in years.
It is this story of Alvarenga’s life — before, during, and after his days at sea — that distinguishes Franklin from other authors that have written about miraculous tales of survival. Oftentimes, authors find themselves so lost in the documentation of the events during the central character’s struggle to survive that they overlook the character’s life before and after the ordeal. In contrast to such authors, Jonathan Franklin finds himself fascinated with the details of Alvarenga’s life, especially his escape from El Salvador and the decision to abandon his family, including his young daughter. The intimate details Franklin notes about Alvarenga and his life helps readers become more familiar with Alvarenga. In the first few pages of the book, Franklin describes, “Alvarenga had a terrible singing voice made worse by an overdose of confidence” (2). This line not only familiarized me with Jose Alvarenga’s qualities, but also helped me comprehend that this seemingly simple man was able to survive over 14 months as a castaway at sea. At the end of the book, Franklin doesn’t leave readers hanging as he documents the heartwarming reunion between José Salvador Alvarenga and his daughter, Fatima. This reunion tugged at my heartstrings, especially since Fatima had previously thought her father was dead.
Perhaps one of the most appealing components that drew me into completing 438 Days within a span of two short days was the abundance of conspiracy theories behind it. Something about reading a non-fiction book with so much criticism and so much doubt regarding its validity made me want to read it more. I recall reading about Alvarenga’s story of survival in the news in early 2014 with many shooting it down as a “hoax” or a “publicity stunt." As a second-hand account, 438 Days gains its validity from author Jonathan Franklin’s magnificent quoting of professionals, such as Professor Michael Tipton, an expert in examining the physiological and psychological responses to adverse environments. Franklin quotes Professor Michael Tipton in his description of Cordoba’s quickly deteriorating physical state, “When you look at the fatal accident inquiries, when you look at the stories from the life rafts, the person who got seasick is nearly always the first person to die” (117). As I was reading, the facts presented by experts in different fields of study set down any criticism, and I knew skeptical readers and their doubtful thoughts were constantly dissuaded.
As a second-hand account of a survival story, 438 Days upholds its validity thanks to Jonathan Franklin’s devotion to learning everything about José Salvador Alvarenga and his extraordinary survival story. Franklin’s experience as a journalist shines through in this book as he doesn’t leave a detail unmentioned. Personally, I thought the book was a masterpiece aside from the few repetitive scenes; then again, repetitiveness is inevitable when writing about 438 days at sea.