Over the Edge: The True Story of Four American Climbers’ Kidnap and Escape in the Mountains of Central Asia. Greg Child. New York: Villard. 2002. 284 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
Over the Edge is Greg Child’s fifth book. It chronicles the terror that four young American climbers underwent when Islamic militants kid napped them for six harrowing days in August 2000. Much of the book deals with the events surrounding how the climbers made their escape when Tommy Caldwell pushed one of their tormentors off a cliff. Early on, Child gained the sole rights to their stories and so this is in some sense an exclusive for him although he has related a briefer sketch of this story earlier in Outside Magazine.
The book is well researched, and probes deeply into the roots of the Central Asian region and the conflict that eventually embroiled not just four American lives, but many others—from the Kyrgyzstan army, to local shepherds and villagers uprooted in the brief but violent incursion, and finally to families and friends back home in America. The last third of the book deals with the immediate aftermath and the fall-out, including the intense media scrutiny, the lasting psychological scars, and the bro ken relationships. But it is not all negative in the end. Child does a nice job of describing how Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden’s relationship deepened as a result of their trials and tribu lations.
Child helps us to get to know these disparate personalities: Jason “Singer” Smith, John Dickey, Tommy Caldwell, and Beth Rodden. It is Child’s portrait of Caldwell and Rodden as innocents swept up in great evil that truly fascinates. Since this story takes place pre-9/11 it is all the harder for them to comprehend such evil. We cannot fault Child for coming up empty handed on the roots of this deep hatred. Many other much better known authors such as Samuel Hunt ington and Mark Jurgensmeyer have failed to produce any truly convincing explanations, either. In this sense, perhaps Rodden represents all of our incredulity at such loathing. How can one human being so completely hate another—one with whom they have never had a conflict and do not even know? But in spite of all that they are put through, Caldwell is truly horrified—self tortured really—over the (incorrect) thought of having killed someone. Out of such chaos both Caldwell and Rodden strike one as particularly noble individuals. Child’s portraits are perspica cious and nuanced on this point. This is, in many ways, a world without moral rhyme or reason.
Eventually cracks appear in the four climbers’ relationships that soon become an unbridgeable chasm. This dissension begins with the always loquacious Smith simply calling the shots as he sees them. He is unafraid and uncaring of saying whatever comes to mind. He is an individual easy to identify with. In the end this characteristic simply proves incompatible with the far more sensitive pair of Caldwell and Rodden. But the final rift occurs between the two pairs when Caldwell and Rodden hold a press conference before Smith and Dickey arrived back in the country. This is taken to be an unforgivable insult by the latter.
Besides being accomplished in his character portrayals—helping us to get to know each person intimately—Child has an interesting aside at the end of the book where he describes what seems to be John Bouchard’s strange obsession with the case and his compulsion to prove the story a hoax. For whatever reasons, this narrative seems to excite disbelief in people. Bouchard has taken upon himself the cause of showing the world that such tale could never be true. This seems odd when we live in an age where terrorists hijack planes full of people and fly them into buildings full of people.
Despite its many strengths, the book is far too long, probably by about a third. There is certainly too much background on the conflict in the early part of the book that is boring and hard to follow. Then there is the seemingly endless fascination about who actually pushed their captor over the cliff. But what we really need in this book is a whole lot less of Child himself. His entire climbing resume is slipped into various parts of the book, which is disruptive at the least, and egoistic at the worst. Child even presents us with advance reviews from Variety breathlessly telling us that the very book we are reading is the next Into Thin Air. Save it for the back of the jacket cover. We also don’t need to have an entire chapter (21) devoted to how the writer out-scammed everyone else for the exclusive book rights and movie rights. And then the rationalizing about why he burned Climbing magazine for the story and why exclusive book deals are “a simple matter of business” sounds just like, well, rationalizing. While we could have done with a whole lot less Child in the story, we could do with a whole lot more editor.
Child is a good writer already, though I believe his best book is still in him. For proof, read chapter 19—“A.K.A. Abdual”—a truly gripping account of how one of the captors was eventually killed in a hand-to-hand battle with Kyrgyzstan special forces. I can easily recom mend this book. It is an incredible story, and Child does justice to the cool-headed heroism of all four Americans. Overall, it’s an exciting read.