With a title like Shook and a subtitle that includes both the words earthquake and deadliest, you might think that Jennifer Hull’s recent book is simply a page turner, a book to consume but not one to carry. And you would be both right and wrong. Her book, one centering on the figure of Dave Hahn, the Michael Jordan of mountaineering, definitely keeps you turning the pages as you watch Hahn guide a group of climbers and Sherpas into what you already know will be disaster, but the story is one that refuses to leave. Long after the last page and the survivors have been evacuated by helicopter, you remain on Everest asking yourself the same questions that Hull is asking: why do we take risks as human beings, what does real strength look like, and where are the fault lines that run across through earth and heart? As is true of the best narrative nonfiction, Shook refuses to simply recount the facts (compelling as they are) and instead makes us think about our own humanity—even if we never plan to strap a crampon to our boots. It is Hull’s capable hands as a writer, specifically her ability to weave research—site visits, archival work, interviews—into the story of that fateful trip in the spring of 2015, that pushes Shook past the bounds of fact and into the realm of art.
Smartly, Hull begins at the end, with the earthquake that shook Nepal and took nine thousand lives, some of them on Everest. But the earthquake, she suggests, isn’t the real story. She dismantles chronological order because she knows her readers already understand that version of the tale. Instead, she wants to offer another—one about what compels us to climb and how we respond when we no longer can. Dave Hahn is the guide who leads the group, a man who has summited Everest more than any other non-Nepali. A year before, in 2014, Hahn had been on Everest when a chunk of the glacier the size of a building went crashing down and ended that season. Hull writes that Hahn had already learned the lesson that “ultimately, Mother Nature was in charge.” The delicate balance between the human capacity to plan, think, and control and nature’s indifference creates just one of the fault lines that Hull explores in this book. Because Hahn makes the hard choices in every expedition he guides—the hardest being when to turn back—those under his care live, but that burden is a heavy one, and Hull explores Hahn’s childhood and early experiences to help us understand just how this man bears the responsibility of ascent. Hull writes early on that on this expedition, Hahn “felt the pressure, more than ever, to perform…the need to prove himself.” That is what he takes up the mountain in the spring of 2015.
People drive the story here. We learn about those who have climbed Everest in the past, those who are on this particular expedition, their loved ones, and their ambitions. Much of this information comes from meticulous interviews conducted by Hull, as well as access to diaries and letters. A reader knows about the depth of Hull’s research only by looking at her notes. When you are in the narrative itself, you are pulled along by strong scene re-creation, stunning detail, and vivid imagery. You forget that Hull herself was not on this climb. As any nonfiction writer will say, the ability to create such a strong narrative line comes only from deep research and an immersion in the material. Hull has done the hard work so that the reader can be carried along in the narrative dream. When Hahn is summiting a mountain, he is “forced to stay in the present moment,” and we, as readers, are able to feel the intensity of that moment because of Hull’s beautiful crafting.
Importantly, Hull makes no judgments about who should climb or even whether people should climb. She points to the fissures that exist between the Western climbers and the Nepalese Sherpas who make those climbs possible; she acknowledges that more and more climbers are attempting Everest with the ability to pay but not to climb, and she is clear to name the reality that “the body begins to die” when approaching the final summit, but she never enters the text to suggest which of these decisions are right or okay. Instead, she focuses on why individuals are willing to endure a “sufferfest” in order to attempt something that kills one person in every five. And for Hull, that why is often found in loss—the early loss of a parent or sibling, the loss of physical health, and, for Hahn, the loss of youth. Each person we meet seems to climb as a way to mend a brokenness in themselves, and such brokenness is what ultimately interests Hull the most.
Hull tells Hahn’s story because Hahn himself refuses to tell it, unwilling “to profit from anyone’s loss.” And we are grateful to Hull for understanding that she can carry Hahn’s story for him—not as a way to profit from loss but as a way to heal from it. Hull rightly ends her book focused on Hahn and by that point, we understand that we share much with Hahn—that even though we do not climb Everest, we still negotiate the possibility of earthquakes every day and must face just how little is within our control. Jennifer Hull’s Shook is compelling, beautiful, and timely. Sometimes the earth beneath us turns out to be unstable, sometimes what we love most is lost, and sometimes we must turn away from a summit that we have spent our lives preparing to ascend. Hull helps us think about how to start again.
About the Reviewer
Jennifer Sinor is the author of several books of literary nonfiction, including, most recently, Sky Songs: Meditations on Loving a Broken World. She teaches creative nonfiction at Utah State University, where she is a professor of English.