Thursday, September 10, 2015

Deep Down Dark, by Hector Tobar

Deep Down Dark is the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped hundreds of feet underground for more than two months in 2010. Tobar got the exclusive rights to tell the men's stories; they signed an agreement not to individually tell what happened underground--particularly in the nearly three weeks before people aboveground knew they were alive--and all but one held to the agreement. Those first days and then weeks after the mine collapsed are described in excruciating detail. For those of us who have been in the coal mine at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry--or a similar reconstruction--the size and complexity of the mine and the apparent lack of safety precautions are stunning.

Naturally, immediately following the collapse, the miners are frightened; the shift supervisor abdicates his leadership role, and the group flounders until several men step up to provide leadership regarding specific tasks. One small contingent raids the pitifully inadequate food supplies, and only quick action by one of the men saves them all from starvation. As it is, they have almost nothing to eat and lose weight rapidly. While their health suffers from lack of nutrition, the unbearable heat, fungus caused by the damp in the mine, and isolation, the group eventually develops a system by which they manage to get along (for the most part).

After the crews working aboveground successfully drill a hole down to where the miners are trapped, things change. Their physical health improves as they are supplied with food and clean water, but their mental/emotional health and sense of unity suffers, both because they are facing the prospect of being in the mind for several months and because of the tension arising from their sudden celebrity, felt even hundreds of feet below the surface. Contact with family buoys some of the men but seems to sadden others.

Nonetheless, all 33 emerge from the mind alive and considerably earlier than the "by Christmas" they had initially been warned to expect. While the early days in the mine were horrendous, equally sad is how little was done to help the men adjust psychologically after they returned home. Family members often told Tobar that the man who came out of the mine was not the same one who went in. The media attention only exacerbated many of the men's problems. While some were returning to "normal" life when Tobar ends the story about a year after their rescue, others were still struggling mightily.

Deep Down Dark focuses primarily on the men in the mine. Some aspects of their families' stories and the story of the rescue are also covered, but the 33 men are the heart of the book. Because I was listening to the book and I don't speak Spanish, I found it difficult to keep straight who the different "characters" were--but in the end that didn't really matter. While the horrific details of the men's stories draw you into the story, the larger questions keep you thinking: How and why is faith helpful when people are facing terrible circumstances? How do leaders emerge and gain the support of the larger group (one miner saw himself as a leader but was not necessarily regarded in the same way by his colleagues)? How does celebrity affect everyday people who are thrust into the limelight through events out of their control? How do you recover from an experience so devastating?

Sometimes a difficult book to read, but definitely worthwhile.

Favorite passages:
It seems silly to Franklin [a former member of the Chilean national soccer team] for his fellow miners to think of themselves as national heroes when all they've done is gotten themselves trapped in a place where only the desperate and the hard up for cash go to suffer and toil. They are famous now, yes, but that heady sense of fullness that fame gives you, that sense of being at the center of everything, will disappear quicker than they could possibly imagine. Franklin tries to speak this truth to his fellow miners, but he does so halfheartedly, because he knows the only way to learn it is to live it.

If you make a man a symbol of things that are bigger than any one person can possibly be, you risk stripping that man of his sense of who he really is.

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