"And then they made a stew out of blanched chicory root and ostrich feet."
December 13, 2007 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Please to recommend novels that could function as survival manuals.

I really like books that get extremely detailed about the practical minutiae of staying alive/fed/housed in various times and places.

Books like this include (I didn't say they were particularly good books.) the Jean M. Auel Clan of the Cave Bear novels, the Little House on the Prairie children's books, and the YA novel Dogsong.

I also, of course, like good writing and good characterization and good stories. But I'm mostly obsessed with long scenes about someone getting up and making breakfast.

Any era, any culture would be great. I'd love to read something, say, about women in WWII London making their rations work, or the nitty-gritty of life on the Silk Road. Or life as medieval Scottish merchants. Etc.

Basically, anything you've got, I'll devour gratefully.
posted by thehmsbeagle to Media & Arts (62 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
(maybe you knew that, Dogsong is by the same author)
posted by ALongDecember at 5:17 PM on December 13, 2007

The Sign of the Beaver
posted by inconsequentialist at 5:19 PM on December 13, 2007

First thing to come to mind is Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Another would be Robert Heinlein's weird survivalist novel Farnham's Freehold. Further off this track would be John McPhee's study of the Swiss Army, La Place de la Concorde Suisse, which isn't a novel, but is better written than either earlier book.
posted by cgc373 at 5:20 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

My Side of the Mountain
posted by flabdablet at 5:22 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

My Side of the Mountain
posted by caddis at 5:23 PM on December 13, 2007

Robinson Crusoe?
posted by thomas j wise at 5:24 PM on December 13, 2007

posted by caddis at 5:24 PM on December 13, 2007

Huh. Wikipedia has a Survivalism article with a section on "Novels." (The Frank and Heinlein books are both listed.)
posted by cgc373 at 5:25 PM on December 13, 2007

And Alive in case you ever crash into the Andes.
posted by inconsequentialist at 5:25 PM on December 13, 2007

I love this sort of book too. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George is right up your alley, as is (though a very different book) Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes I'll try to think of some more.
posted by smoakes at 5:27 PM on December 13, 2007

Oh! Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a book called Always Coming Home that's chock-full of "how these people live" information.
posted by cgc373 at 5:29 PM on December 13, 2007

Lucifer's Hammer, which gets kind of meta about the kind of books you could use (and barter with) after, say, a huge comet crashes into the earth.
posted by maudlin at 5:30 PM on December 13, 2007

(And there's a long scene of somebody getting up and making breakfast at the beginning of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Bananas are involved. It's awesome fun, but probably not quite in keeping with your question.)
posted by cgc373 at 5:31 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch
posted by selton at 5:31 PM on December 13, 2007

I'm not totally sure this fits, but for some reason, Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind. Maybe partly because my mom thought it had way to much description.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:32 PM on December 13, 2007

Oh! Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and probably anything else by Scott O'Dell.
posted by smoakes at 5:37 PM on December 13, 2007

Sing down the moon and Island of the Blue Dolphins, both by Scott O'Dell, are books about adolescent Native American girls who try to rebuild their lives when they find themselves removed from their societies.
posted by amethysts at 5:40 PM on December 13, 2007

Adrift? But not a novel, really.
posted by bartleby at 5:46 PM on December 13, 2007

I am going to favorite this thread because it's a favorite trope of mine. A very popular theme in juvenile/YA fiction, for sure.

I certainly agree on Hatchet, My side of the Mountain. Also: I Heard The Owl Call My Name, The Cay, Swiss Family Robinson, The 21 Balloons.

Post-apocalyptic survival stories (more 'rebuilding society' than 'water filtration techniques'): The Stand, Swan Song, Fiskadoro, The Mosquito Coast.
posted by SassHat at 5:47 PM on December 13, 2007

Fab question! How about Gaining Ground (Joan Barfoot) for when you leave your family to discover yourself in Canada, or Life of Pi, if you are trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger, or Day of the Triffids, if you have to organise a group of blind people in post-apocalyptic London. Also Cold Mountain, you know what that's about, or Dawn Wind (Rosemary Sutcliff, v. good Young Adult) should you find yourself defeated by the Saxons and alone in the ruins of Roman Britain....
posted by runincircles at 5:50 PM on December 13, 2007

What about the Diary of Anne Frank, or anything you can find when you google "Children in Hiding - Holoccaust". I came upon this idea when I looked for a book I read as a kid in the 70's called "Children in Hiding", about a boy and his sister who I think ran away from a foster home with his sister and they lived on the streets. It told of how he found fresh fruits and vegetables after the markets closed, and got free fish from the fishmongers, etc. Interesting story written from a kid's point of view.

I loved that book - if anyone knows where I can find that, I would be much appreciative. Sorry I digressed from the original topic.
posted by WaterSprite at 6:01 PM on December 13, 2007

More YA domesticity in the face of the apocalypse: Z for Zachariah and How I Live Now.
posted by ellanea at 6:03 PM on December 13, 2007

Heinlein's Young Adult novel Tunnel in the Sky comes to mind. It's lots of fun, if you don't mind Heinlein's writing style.
posted by goingonit at 6:07 PM on December 13, 2007

Scott Westerfeld's Uglies has some good bits about surviving a trek through the wilderness, and folks living 'off the grid', in a ?Ya near-ish future sort of way.
posted by pupdog at 6:08 PM on December 13, 2007

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival. How to survive being a slave of desert nomads on a long trip through the desert. Tips on ingratiating yourself with your master (when you don't speak the same language), eating and drinking anything that becomes available, how not to freeze at night and burn to a crisp by day, how to walk through sand for hours each day, all the while trying to stay sane.
posted by tellurian at 6:31 PM on December 13, 2007

Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Jose Saramago's Blindness.

Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast.
posted by notyou at 6:33 PM on December 13, 2007

If you can get past the lesbian wiccans in chain mail, S.M. Stirling's Emberverse novels go into pretty yawntastic detail about people surviving the sudden collapse of modern technology. Chapters of his work available for perusal here.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:33 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Into the Forest by Jean Hegland. I was utterly captivated.
posted by kimdog at 6:36 PM on December 13, 2007

Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher
(It's loosely based on Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson. The movie Jeremiah Johnson is loosely based on Mountain Man. MM details wild foods and hunting skills as well as some excellent wilderness cooking tips.)
posted by Seamus at 6:41 PM on December 13, 2007

Seems to me that Island of the Blue Dolphins (YA) sort of fit the bill.
posted by thivaia at 6:48 PM on December 13, 2007

Lord of the Flies
posted by kirkaracha at 6:52 PM on December 13, 2007

For a novel about survival on scant resources in an urban environment, Down and Out In Paris and London by Orwell is a classic. I second Adrift. Even though it's autobiographical, you couldn't possibly make up a more gripping survival story. And it includes incredibly minute details about how he made his tools and kept the raft together.
posted by otolith at 6:58 PM on December 13, 2007

after reading jack london's to build a fire, you'll never build a fire in fifty below temps under a tree with its branches full of snow.
posted by bruce at 7:14 PM on December 13, 2007

Oh, also

The Long Walk about a guy who traveled from Siberia ultimately to England, excellent book, I have no idea how to post a link here, sorry.
posted by WaterSprite at 7:21 PM on December 13, 2007

posted by WaterSprite at 7:21 PM on December 13, 2007

This might fit your bill (been years since I read it, but it popped into my head right on the heels of after My Side of the Mountain): A Light in the Forest, by Conrad Richter.

Oh! And Tom Brown's School Days, whose subtitle should be "How to Survive an English Public School, Beginning at Age Seven".
posted by rtha at 7:22 PM on December 13, 2007

Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island is a pretty good guide on how to survive in the wilderness, if you happen to have crash-landed on an island inhabited by a mysterious but benevolent character.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:46 PM on December 13, 2007

Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler. More about the psychological aspect of survival and adaptation than the nitty-gritty of what plants to forage for, but definitely worth reading.

In a similar vein to the children-in-Holocaust suggestion, there are some good detailed books out there about escapes from slavery.

DMZ is a pretty great 2-chapter graphic novel about people surviving and improvising in a war-torn future Manhattan.
posted by hippugeek at 7:55 PM on December 13, 2007

Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger goes into great detail about what the soldiers pack for their living and "working" in the foothills of Columbia. There is a lot about gear and food and weapons and how to live out there in the woods without people knowing you are there.

I'll 2nd the Stand as above although the aspect of that book I liked the most (besides the vignettes of how some of the survivors accidentally killed themselves) was the reformation of the government. I found that utterly fascinating.
posted by mmascolino at 8:01 PM on December 13, 2007

Man, all of these YA titles are bringing me back. Another one that just resurfaced in my brain is Slake's Limbo. This is another urban survival story that I remember included lots of details about subsisting hand-to-mouth and scratching out a living on the margins of society. I think I was 11 when I read it, so my memory may be a little sketchy on this one, though the Amazon reviews seem to back me up.
posted by otolith at 8:06 PM on December 13, 2007

Um... the one about the two kids who get stuck in the arctic and have to figure out igloos, hunting, dealing with snowblindness etc. It spent a lot of time talking about exact rations and describing their supplies in biblical detail.

I'd remember the title if I was still nine.
posted by rokusan at 8:39 PM on December 13, 2007

This may not have the realism you're looking for, but aside from the threats of the living dead, Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z might be interesting for you. The level of detail around disaster response and survival is top-notch. They're certainly all about staying alive (and that includes food, shelter, etc). It's just that instead of being isolated from humanity, you're surrounded by hungry animated corpses.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:50 PM on December 13, 2007

I always thought that the first book in the Boxcar Children series really prepared me to live alone (or with other children) in a boxcar. There was some (as much as was appropriate for a children's book, I guess) detail as to setting up their Boxcar, which I found especially exhilarating.

You wouldn't be able to survive in the wilderness based on that information alone, of course. I don't think.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:50 PM on December 13, 2007

The Boxcar Children is about four orphaned children, ages 6 through 14, who run away and live in a boxcar. They scrounge for things in the dump, build a small dam to make a pool/pond, and forage for food, while the oldest does odd jobs in a small town. It was written in the 40's, and is considered a classic YA novel. There was a whole series afterward, but I've only read the first one.
posted by expialidocious at 8:56 PM on December 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mael Oui beat me to it.
posted by expialidocious at 8:57 PM on December 13, 2007

Seconding World War Z. It really makes you think, and trust me: you'll be prepared for the zombie invasion.
posted by lilac girl at 9:35 PM on December 13, 2007

The Hatchet, The Cay
posted by HotPatatta at 10:56 PM on December 13, 2007

Nth My Side of the Mountain
posted by bigmusic at 11:14 PM on December 13, 2007

Earth Abides
posted by sharkfu at 11:48 PM on December 13, 2007

Does it have to be fiction? Because the Foxfire books are more like ... reportage. They and the Whole Earth Catalog are what I picked up after I'd read Hatchet, The River, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Julie of the Wolves, My Side of the Mountain, The Other Side of the Mountain, and The Sign of the Beaver. And now that I list them all, I'm trying to decide if I was obsessed with survival in particular, or if I just, well, read like a maniac for years at a time.
posted by eritain at 11:54 PM on December 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Diana Gabaldons Jamie Frasier books are about a WWII era nurse who falls through a time vortex and ends up in Scotland in the 1500s (1600?) and she figures out all the herbs she needs to make medicines and the like and other stuff about day to day survival in that era.

John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons, the computer that controls all of earth fails and the medieval recreationists are the only ones who can survive without the modern stuff.
posted by legotech at 11:54 PM on December 13, 2007

Foul Play (1869) by Charles Reade - how to get a desert island running like the Ritz, and escape using knowledge of longitude and geese.

Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household - how to escape on foot from pre-war Nazi Germany (after being caught trying to assassinate Hitler) and go to earth in an English hedgerow in order to evade German agents.
posted by Mocata at 5:58 AM on December 14, 2007

A Woman in Berlin is the true story of a woman surviving in the city during the eight week period after Berlin fell to the Allies. It was first released in 1954 but quickly went out of print because it was regarded as too disturbing. It was released again a few years ago. The Guardian review is here.
posted by Cuke at 6:20 AM on December 14, 2007

Swiss Family Robinson
posted by sid at 6:28 AM on December 14, 2007

I second Bruce and "to light a fire from jack london's compendium of short stories. An absolutely brilliant story of a man fighting for survival in the cold. I don't want to ruin it with more details, but it puts you in the scene like very few stories do.

As well as that, in the same book there's a story called, "a piece of steak" which is very much about the day to day hardships having a real affect on a man's struggle to survive as a boxer in the old yokon/goldrush era.

Awesome stuff. I can't remember if it's in "white fang" or "call of the wild" but there's a description of a group of men, with depleting ammunition, making through the snow as fast as they can to escape from wolves which are getting ever more hungry, ever more desperate and ever closer..... At some point they're forced to leave their dead friend up in a tree.

Jack London is, i'm fairly sure, exactly what you're looking for.
posted by galactain at 6:34 AM on December 14, 2007

Last of the Breed by Louis L'Amour
posted by silly110671 at 7:16 AM on December 14, 2007

Into the Wild, just so you never forget that undomesticated potatoes are poisonous.
posted by jbrjake at 7:42 AM on December 14, 2007

Life of Pi: "After much gore and infighting, Pi and Richard Parker remain the boat's sole passengers, drifting for 227 days through shark-infested waters while fighting hunger, the elements, and an overactive imagination. In rich, hallucinatory passages, Pi recounts the harrowing journey as the days blur together, elegantly cataloging the endless passage of time and his struggles to survive: 'It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I've made none the champion.' "
posted by kidsleepy at 9:21 AM on December 14, 2007

On the less serious side, for surviving in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there's From the Mixed up Files of etc. etc.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:58 AM on December 14, 2007

Emergence by David Palmer, a young woman traveling to find survivors after a post-apocalyptic nuclear/biological attack.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm - a mountain community struggles to survive after a nuclear attack. Covers a couple of generations. Does deviate into cloning.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 6:19 PM on December 14, 2007

I'm so glad I asked this question! I'd mark you all as best answers, but I imagine that would be weird and annoying.

Many thanks to everyone, and I look forward to reading many of these suggestions.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:37 PM on December 14, 2007

Hey, thehmsbeagle, can I pop into your Recent Activity and see if you've read any of the stuff recommended yet? Something about this question has prompted me to want to read similar material—though I've been distracted by roots music studies stuff like Greil Marcus's The Old, Weird America. If you have any shout-outs, maybe I can switch to the surviving, instead of the lamentin' or the murderin' or whatever else those old folk ballads get up to.
posted by cgc373 at 10:09 AM on January 20, 2008

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