Every once in a while, you will want to hug a book. “The Mountain Between Us” by Charles Martin is one of these books. This novel possesses such a deep understanding of male sensitivity that I was surprised to see that the author is male. Normally, male lead characters that emote this much love and undying devotion for the women in their lives are dreamed up by female authors. There is no bravado here; Ben makes the right decisions while under the worst of circumstances. He also loves his wife more than few men in real life ever do.
Dr. Ben Payne is a doctor who has just wrapped up a medical conference and is eager to make his way back home for a slew of surgeries he has scheduled for the following day. Ashley Knox is an accomplished author who is also heading back east to attend her own wedding. When these two strangers find themselves trapped at the airport due to an impending storm, Ben comes up with the idea to charter a private flight home and invites Ashley along, despite having just met her. She hesitantly accepts. What follows are the most grueling weeks of both of their lives.
Grover, the pilot of the private plane, has a heart attack at the wheel and dies, crashing the plane. Ben and Ashley are then stranded with Grover’s dog Tank, whom Ben names Napoleon when he can’t remember its name. Ben has some broken ribs, but nothing else that would hold him back from taking care of the more seriously injured Ashley. She has a gruesome broken leg that requires constant medical attention. Using skills he learned when backpacking with his wife, from whom he is currently separated, Ben helps Ashley and Tank survive their inhumane conditions on the barest of essentials while trying to remain alive as well. The most important of Ben’s tools is the Jet-boil in his bag that can turn snow into drinkable water, and Ben quickly learns that hunting wild game is not as easy as it looks on TV. Worst of all, Ben has to figure out how to get the three of them down the steep, treacherous mountain and into civilization that lies over 60 miles away from them.
This book warms you as it chills you, much like the snowy conditions these two are forced to endure. Ben shares the most intimate of experiences with Ashley in that he helps to warm her, feed her and even helps her go to the bathroom (all of this as her doctor), yet despite her prying and the lack of others’ ears, he refuses to explain to her why he and his wife are separated. I found this to be a bit eerie, mainly because I had heard prior to reading this book that the book has a twist ending. This had me pondering the possibility that Ben either killed his wife, or that he is crazy and she never existed. I also thought that the twist might involve Ben and Ashley both dying at the end, but if Ben is narrating, that means he lived, right? And if he is alive, did Ashley die? If not, what happened to her?
Both Ben and Ashley are such likeable characters, particularly because they both express a strong sense of humor in the worst of times. I hope that there are people out there who can remain so lighthearted in the face of near-certain death and suffering. As we may have heard in the past, and as is depicted in this book, sometimes humor is essential to survival. It gives us the strength to carry on when our body doesn’t think it can, and sometimes our mind can be the deciding factor in whether we pull ourselves out of trouble or sink further down into it.
As the story goes on, I found myself wondering how Ben could be separated from his wife. What did he do that was so bad? He talks to her every night in a voice recorder and expresses nothing but love for her. When he talks about her to Ashley, he speaks of nothing but good times. Any woman reading this book would wonder what woman out there would not give this lovely man a second chance. The love story in this book is believable but rare. Even Grover, the pilot who perishes and crashes the plane, is as devoted to his wife as Ben is to his own. Love and survival are the major themes in this book, and one often depends on the other in order to exist.
“The Mountain Between Us” is a page-turner that would make a great film. I found myself coming back to it at work like the kid in The Never-ending Story. I’d put it down to start doing something else and once the task was finished, I immediately picked it up again. Martin has such a firm grasp on what survival in the wild would be like, it had me wondering throughout the novel if he ever bore such conditions in his own life. And if he feels the same affection for his wife that Ben has for his own, then she is one very lucky lady who can vouch for the real-life experience.