The Summer of Survival Stories: "I Am Still Alive"

Seira Wilson on August 23, 2018
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I_Am_Still_Alive200.jpgFor some reason this has been the summer of gritty survival stories in young adult, and one of my favorites is Kate Alice Marshall's  I Am Still Alive.  Described as "Cheryl Strayed's Wild meets The Revenant," I Am Still Alive is a book that keeps you guessing and rooting for Jess, a young woman determined to not only survive her perilous situation but also take revenge on those who caused it. 

I really enjoyed the before/after sequence of chapters; 'Before' being Jess losing her mother in a car crash and going to live with a father she barely knew in the Canadian wilderness.  'After'--well, that's where Jess' solo survival journey begins.  Her dad's been killed, their cabin burned to the ground, she's injured, and all she's got is a dog and her wits.

This is an edge-of-your-seat read that might be categorized as young adult, but I've talked to plenty of people past their teens and twenties who love it, too.  After all, it's a story of digging deep, getting your grit on, and fighting back. What's not to love?

I asked Marshall why and how she chose this particular story to tell--you can see what she has to say about survival, revenge, and fighting for something, in the exclusive piece below.

* I Am Still Alive was an editors pick for the best young adult books of July


When writing a survival story, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first is obvious—how does this character survive?

You start with the practicalities. Shelter. Water. Food. Fire. You craft dangers. You devise solutions. You engineer triumphs and failures, disasters and windfalls, carefully keeping your heroine balanced at the edge of impossibility. But this is only half the equation. Because, even when given all the same resources and all the same knowledge, some people survive. Others die. The question of how survivors succeed contains another question—a more interesting one. Why does one person live, and another die?
In writing I AM STILL ALIVE, I knew that the answer to this question would form the heart of the story, and inform every aspect of my protagonist Jess's identity. Every day, Jess faces a fight for survival. I needed to know what she was fighting for.

The obvious answer is revenge. Jess's father is dead, and the men responsible have left her stranded in the wilderness. She's grief-stricken and angry—and she does want vengeance. But revenge and survival are at odds with each other: revenge is a self-destructive act, one that you don't expect to emerge from—or at least emerge from whole. Jess's desire for revenge isn't her reason for surviving; it exists in contradiction and tension with her drive to survive. I knew that drive couldn't come from anything external. She's lost everything. Her parents, her home, any semblance of a normal life. And yet she's going to live. Because she's smart, because she's resourceful, because she's stubborn—and because she believes, down to her core, that she is worthy of survival.

I was surprised at how radical that felt to me. Jess, a teen girl, is not fighting for a cause or for romance or for the fate of a nation. She is fighting because she believes that she is worth fighting for, that her survival is righteous. Her drive comes from within, and only from within. You might even call it a little bit egotistical. But there is power in baring your teeth and facing the wilderness—in whatever form it comes—and enduring. Winning. Because you are stubborn. Because you are clever. And because you are capable of achieving extraordinary things, for no one's sake but your own.  --Kate Alice Marshall


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