18 Unforgettable Survival Stories You Don’t Want to Miss

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If you love a great survival story, get ready for some of the best books to add to your reading list. I’m always up for incredible stories of survival, from wilderness adventure books, plane crashes, desert islands, natural or man-made disasters, apocalyptic tales that test survival skills, or nonfiction accounts of harrowing experiences.

These books allow us as readers to live harrowing experiences alongside the main characters who are pulled out of everyday life (for whatever reason) and into extraordinary circumstances. They give us the opportunity to imagine–from a safe distance–what we would do if we landed in a similar hard place, fighting for our own or our family’s survival.

If you, too, love a riveting story of survival and overcoming a perfect storm of disastrous circumstances, you’re sure to find your next read on this list:

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Above the Fire by Michael O'Donnell

Above the Fire

Author: Michael O’Donnell
Narrator: Robert Fass
Publish Date: 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction

Fires and rumored social collapse keep a man and his young son in the wilderness during a hiking trip, waiting out the turmoil. A quiet, slow-burn of a novel, with relationships at the forefront and the tension of the unknown percolating in the background.

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

The Bear

Author: Andrew Krivak
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction

In a post-apocalyptic future, a man and his daughter are the only remaining humans. Nature has survived and he teaches her to live in harmony with it. The young girl soon finds herself alone, drawing on her father’s lessons and stories. A short, sparse, and beautiful fable of the natural world that’s reminiscent of The Road, but feels more hopeful.

Into the Forest by Jean Hegland

Into the Forest

Author: Jean Hegland
Publish Date: 1998
Genres: Fiction, Dystopias

When the electricity goes out, with no explanation and no signs of it returning, Nell, her father, and sister Eva must survive in their isolated forest home. In their isolation, their connection to one another and the nature that surrounds them grows stronger. A good book for contemplating, “What would I do?”

Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch

Stay and Fight

Author: Madeline ffitch
Narrator: Bailey Carr & Sophie Amoss
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

When Helen’s boyfriend leaves her alone after they move to Appalachia, she invites her neighbors Karen and Lily and their son, Perley, to share ownership of her land. Bent on being independent, together, the three women and Perley build a life–until the outside world encroaches in ways they didn’t expect. This book combines so many themes: the families we create, living off the land, life in Appalachia and poverty, and rugged femininity, all told in multiple riveting voices.


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18+ Unforgettable Survival Stories You Don't Want to Miss

The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele

The Lightest Object in the Universe

Author: Kimi Eisele
Publish Date: 2019
Genres: Fiction, Dystopia

The Lightest Object in the Universe imagines a collapse of the global economy and electrical grid. Carson, on the east coast, is desperate to make his way to Beatrix, on the west coast, where she has joined with her neighborhood to share resources and rebuild their lives. Filled with ordinary people ready to offer help, empathy, encouragement, friendship, and family, this is a refreshingly optimistic view of human nature and behavior in the worst circumstances. 

Freefall by Jessica Barry

Freefall

Author: Jessica Barry
Publish Date: 2018
Genres: Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

After surviving a private plane crash in the Colorado Rockies that kills the pilot, Allison Carpenter must also survive the wilderness as she makes her way through the mountains and dense forest. But the wilderness isn’t the only threat Allison faces. In alternating narratives with her mother, Allison’s story slowly unfolds to reveal what she is running from–and to. Read my full review.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars

Author: Peter Heller
Publish Date: 2013
Genres: Fiction, Dystopia

After a flu pandemic kills most of the population, Hig survives in a small abandoned Colorado airport with only his dog and a volatile neighbor for company. When a transmission comes through pointing to signs that there may be a better life out there, he risks everything to try to find it. Heller is a must-read author if you love great stories backed by excellent nature writing.

Breathless by Amy McCulloch

Breathless

Author: Amy McCulloch
Publish Date: May 3, 2022
Source: Book of the Month
Genres: Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

Cecily is a journalist with the chance of a lifetime: accompany world-renowned mountaineer Charles McVeigh on a record-breaking climb and get a career-making interview–if she can reach the summit. As the team prepares for their summit push up Manaslu, several tragedies at lower elevations have her wondering: is the mountain the only killer, or is there one among them as well? An excellent wilderness thriller.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road

Author: Cormac McCarthy
Publish Date: 2013
Genres: Fiction, Dystopia

The Road is a classic dystopia that presents the bleakest of futures. In it, we follow a man and his son on a long walk through the stark landscape toward the Pacific Ocean–not sure if they will find anything better than what they’ve left. It is a tough read, but it will prompt any reader to consider the paths that could take us to such a future–and what’s next when we get there.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone

Author: Ishmael Beah
Publish Date: 2008
Genres: Nonfiction

Ishmael Beah was a regular 12-year-old boy in Sierra Leone when rebels rampaged through villages, killing everyone they found. He found himself on the run. After surviving for months, he entered a village that seemed safe. Instead, he was pressed into service by the government army, drugged, and trained as a killer. Beah tells the story of his survival and stolen innocence in this heart-wrenching memoir; a good choice for any reader looking for true stories of survival.

Castle of Water by Dane Hucklebridge

Castle of Water

Author: Dane Huckelbridge
Publish Date: 2017
Genres: Literary Fiction

I LOVE any story about people stranded on a desert island–Island of the Blue Dolphins was the first book that sparked my interest in survival stories. The plot of this one is not unique: a plane goes down in the South Pacific, two survivors land on an island, and initial hatred turns to love. But Huckelbridge’s literary style, vivid characters, and the way he intertwined art, music, and reflections on love, loss, and home elevated this book beyond my expectations. I loved it from start to finish.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds

Author: Kristin Hannah
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Elsa Martinelli is a farm wife in Texas in the 1930s. When drought and relentless dust storms threaten their health and livelihoods, her husband leaves. With her children’s health declining, she makes the difficult decision to take them to California in search of the promise of work and a better life. But when they arrive, they find they are anything but welcome, and they face a new kind of fight for their survival. A fascinating story of resilience during a difficult time period in American history.

Vera by Carol Edgarian

Vera

Author: Carol Edgarian
Publish Date: 2021
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction

In 1906 San Francisco, 15-year-old Vera hovers on the edges of the movers and players. Vera’s sharp wit is her only hope–and is key to her survival when the earthquake rips through the city, leaving it burning. She assembles a rag-tag group to find a path forward, with both the fires and the crack-down on the city’s corruption closing in. This was fast-paced historical fiction with a vivid, memorable main character and a unique perspective on a major event that shaped San Francisco.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones

Author: Georgia Hunter
Publish Date: 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction

We Were the Lucky Ones is the incredible story of the members of one Jewish family in Poland during World War II–parents, five grown children and their spouses, and their young children–each struggling for survival as the world crumbles around them, sometimes ripping them from their family at a moment’s notice. Riveting, must-read historical fiction, based on one family’s true story of survival.

All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer

All Stories Are Love Stories

Author: Elizabeth Percer
Publish Date: 2017
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

When two earthquakes devastate San Francisco, survivors make their way across the burning city, trying to get to their loved ones. Lives intertwine in unexpected ways as people step in to help strangers and fight to reach their homes and families. A reminder to these characters–and readers–that the things that matter most are too often neglected until a crisis forces our attention back to them.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken

Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Publish Date: 2010
Genres: Nonfiction

This tale of Louis Zamperini’s trials during World War II is so harrowing you’ll have to remind yourself that it’s not fiction—because you won’t believe that one person could survive all that he did: a plane crash, months at sea on an inflatable raft, shark encounters…and that’s just the start. Unforgettable, riveting nonfiction and one of the best true survival stories I’ve read–I was hooked to the final page.

What Is the What by Dave Eggers

What Is the What

Author: Dave Eggers
Publish Date: 2010
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

The story of Achak Deng, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” who as a child was separated from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He encounters danger, violence, disappointment, and surprising moments of humor and humanity as he flees to unknown places in search of safety and a life. Eggers, who describes this as “fictionalized autobiography,” writes in Deng’s voice to tell of the horrors faced by these children in Sudan and the difficulties they face as immigrants in the United States.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, a thriller about a zoo shooting that will help you get back into a reading habit.

Fierce Kingdom

Author: Gin Phillips
Publish Date: 2017
Genres: Fiction, Mysteries & Thrillers

As a day at the zoo winds down, Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, make their way toward the exit and realize that the fireworks they heard earlier were, in fact, gunshots. Joan and Lincoln spend the next three hours running, navigating the false wilderness and exhibits that provide hiding places–for themselves and for their hunters. Edge-of-your-seat, moment-to-moment survival.

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