Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free

by Hector Tobar

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Hector Tobar, born in Los Angeles to Guatemalan immigrant parents, is a prize-winning author and journalist who has long covered the relationship of the U.S. and Latin America. He has written for The New Yorker, LA Weekly, and Los Angeles Times, a paper his father once delivered. Tobar was on the Los Angeles Times’ 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning team covering the L.A. riots as well as a Metro columnist, book critic, bureau chief in Mexico City and in Buenos Aires, Argentina and national Latino affairs correspondent for the paper. His novels are The Barbarian Nurseries, Translation Nation, and The Tattooed Soldier.

What is this book about?              

The world recoiled in horror in August 2010, when a mine collapsed in Chile, trapping 33 miners under a half-mile of solid rock. For 69 days, rescue operations ground on, but no one was certain how many, if any, of the men had survived. Miraculously, all of them had, and TV viewers watched as they were extracted from the cavern in which they had found shelter, some near starvation. And in another kind of miracle, they made good on their vow to tell their story collectively. The miners chose Hector Tobar to write about their experience and their lives leading up to it and even after it – and that was not always a pretty picture — and they chose very well.

Why you’ll like it:

Deep Down Dark is narrative journalism at its finest, a “you are there” reading experience that took three years of reporting and hundreds of exclusive interviews with all of the 33 miners to flesh out their incredible experience. Tobar, a gifted and scrupulous storyteller, puts us in the bowels of the earth with these men and allows us to feel, as well as to read about, their experience. Today is Thanksgiving, and Deep Down Dark is a book that demands we give thanks for the courage of these men and their rescuers, as well as for the thorough reporting and compelling storytelling that this book offers.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist Tobar presents the riveting story of the 33 men who spent 69 days trapped more than 2,000 feet underground in Chile’s San José Mine in 2010. Noting that the abundance of minerals under the hills of the Atacama desert drew workers from all corners of Chile, Tobar—who was granted exclusive access to the miners and their families—compassionately recounts the miners’ personal histories, experiences during the 17 days they were without outside contact, extended rescue, and the drama above ground with the families living near the mine in their makeshift “Camp Esperanza,” mingling with government ministers, NASA advisors, engineers, mechanics, and drillers. Particularly moving is the reenactment of the first 17 days when the “33” banded together, drinking dirty water used to cool off the mine’s drilling systems and sharing their meager food supplies. Feeling as though “they are living inside a Bible parable,” the men keep their hopes up through prayer, and some gravitate toward particular roles: the pastor, the chronicler, the unofficial spokesman. Tobar vividly narrates the miners’ lives post-rescue as they come to terms with their life-changing experience and the media frenzy surrounding it. Rich in local color, this is a sensitive, suspenseful rendering of a legendary story.”

NPR’s  Maureen Corrigan writes:  “Tobar had exclusive access to the miners, and while that kind of snug situation inevitably places some constraints on a storyteller, Tobar complicates the purely uplifting version of the men’s ordeal, describing occasional resentments and petty thievery. Nonetheless, the most inspiring aspect of the miners’ behavior was their almost immediate decision to act in solidarity. On the first day of their entombment, supervisor Urzua took off his distinctive white helmet and announced to his workers, “We are all equal now. . . .There are no bosses and employees.”

Kirkus says in a starred review:  “. . . Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist Tobar  spins a gripping narrative, taut to the point of explosion, of the 2010 story that made international headlines for weeks. He doesn’t rush a complex story with many strands: the men below and their cacophony of woes, the families above, the political maneuvering of the Chilean state, the tightfisted mine owners and the company of rescuers. The locale featured “harsh, waterless surroundings [that] serve as a laboratory for studying the possibility of life on other planets,” and the mine itself was a sweltering jackstraw of tunnels, some nearing 100 years in age and ripe for disaster, the rock groaning and hissing as the great tectonic plates collided deep below. Tobar’s depiction of the cave-in is cinematic: The ceiling and floor became “undulating waves of stone,” then the lights went out as colossal wedges of rock collapsed to seal the exits. The author fully invests readers in the men’s plight by portraying the crushing realization of the dire circumstances, individual acts of decency and pettiness, and moments of sublimity and madness. He also devotes sympathetic attention to the gathering tent city of relatives who refused to leave, certainly not until the bodies were recovered. When the first bore hole punched through, suddenly, “the devil is present in the mine, taking form in all the greed, the misunderstanding, the envy, and the betrayals between the men.” Ultimately, once the miners made it out alive, via a frightening escape vehicle, life was good—until all the other stuff that surfaced along with the miners began to bring many of them down. An electrifying, empathetic work of journalism that makes a four-year-old story feel fresh.”

Library Journal says: “Tobar relates the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped thousands of feet underground for over two months. A significant portion of the narrative portrays the initial, critical days of survival against starvation. Before rescuers could reach the group, the men managed without assistance by rationing what little food was available, drinking water that was meant for their equipment, and depending on one another for support. As their time trapped below ground lengthened, and rescue efforts grew ever more complex, the men became the object of worldwide media attention. Deep Down Dark details that international rescue effort and the perseverance of those above ground, including mining experts from the United States and Chile, scientists from NASA, and family members who lived near the mine in a tent city for the duration of the rescue. Verdict;  A compelling account of a modern miracle for readers interested in survival narratives and contemporary accounts of recent mining disasters.”

“It’s almost hard to believe that Héctor Tobar wasn’t himself one of the trapped Chilean miners, so vivid, immediate, terrifying, emotional, and convincing is his Homeric narration of this extraordinary incident. Deep Down Dark is a literary masterpiece of narrative journalism, surgical in its reconstruction, novelistic in its explorations of human personality and nuance. In a manner that feels spiritual, Tobar puts himself at the service of his story, and his fidelity to and unquenchable curiosity about every fact and detail generates unforgettable wonderment and awe,” says author and part-time Trinity College professor Francisco Goldman.

When is it available?

This gripping book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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