Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft by Thor Heyerdahl


I always like to include at least one classic on my book group's potential reading list, and last year, the group voted to include Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft as one of our 2015 reads. I thought an adventure story would be a fun summer read, but as August got closer, I began to worry that no one would show up to the book discussion. How many people want to discuss a book that's been around forever but hardly anyone reads anymore? 

Well, to my surprise and delight, I had a full house for the book group discussion -- seven people showed up! Nearly everyone had read the book except one member who watched the documentary. I myself put off reading the book off until a week before the discussion, and I was actually worried that I wouldn't finish it in time. Two days before the meeting, I still had 120 pages to go. However, the final three chapters were so riveting I read it all in one sitting. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For those who don't know the story, Kon-Tiki is the true story of six men (five Norwegians and a Swede) who test author Heyerdahl's theory: that it's possible that hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago, people from South America traveled across the Pacific Ocean as far as Polynesia, more than 4000 miles away. Heyerdahl first made the connection before WWII, while visiting French Polynesia, when he was struck by the likeness of the tiki god statues to South American carvings. After the war, he was in New York City and began planning the journey and found five men to accompany him on what sounds like an insane voyage in 1947. With private donations and some help from the American and Peruvian governments, Heyerdahl and the five other men built the raft from balsa wood had it towed out of the way of shipping lanes, and hoped for the best. 

Over the next three months, the men sailed across the Pacific on the Humboldt current, facing storms, sharks, and whales, with nothing to steer the raft, and mostly basic equipment, though they did have a radio. Most people doubted they would ever reach their destination. I'm fascinated by the romance of sailing, but the thought of floating in the middle of the ocean, thousands of feet above the ocean floor scares me silly. And they did this willingly! But the story is really interesting, especially the encounters with marine life like whale sharks, and what they ate and what they saw every day. 

Whale sharks can get up to 40 feet long, almost as long as the Kon-Tiki raft.
I was surprised at what a fascinating, quick read this book was. I liked most of it though there was a part in the middle where Heyerdahl explains the history of Easter Island which I found a little dry and mostly skimmed. I also wish the book had gone into a little more detail about life on the boat -- how did everyone get along for 101 days, stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere -- literally?

I did a little research afterward, and this book has sold more than 20 million copies and has been translated into many different languages.   My book group mostly liked it, though we did wonder why it was such a huge publishing phenomenon. My guess was that it really captured the public imagination -- it's a pretty amazing feat. It was also made into an award-winning documentary film, and in 2012, made into a fiction version of the film which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. I haven't seen either of the film versions yet but the library owns both so I hope to watch one or both of them soon.

Overall, an excellent read, and I'm counting it as my Non-fiction Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

8 comments:

  1. Gosh, this takes me back! I remember being given this to read at school 35 years or so ago and loving it. I'm a big fan of old adventure stories like this - thanks for the memory!

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    1. I love adventure stories too, I think they're great for summer reading.

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  2. Someday I would like to go to Oslo and see the Kon-Tiki in person.

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    1. I would definitely go to the Kon-Tiki museum if I ever make it to Oslo. I'm sort of obsessed with Scandinavia at the moment -- I've been watching Danish dramas on DVD all summer and I'm mentally planning a Scandinavian tour.

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  3. I have never read the book, but I have seen the documentary. I caught it on TV once, years ago and found it also riveting. I didn’t know that there was also a 2012 dramatization of the event. I haven’t read my non-fiction classic yet. I was thinking Dickens American Notes or Twain’ Innocents Abroad, but your review reminds me that there is a whole wealth of great books I could choose from!

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    1. I have both Dickens and Mark Twain on the TBR shelves also -- I really want to read Life on the Mississippi because it's on my daughter's college reading list this fall. It is amazing how much great classic nonfiction is out there, particularly travel writing. Steinbeck wrote great travelogues as well. I look forward to your post!

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  4. I've been to the Kon-Tiki museum and I was amazed at the size of one of the things he sailed in, it was just a teeny wee raft which I wouldn't have gone on a park pond in.

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  5. I love a good sea-faring adventure be it film or book. Your post has made me want to read this.

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