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NONFICTION : ONE AMERICAN MUST DIE: A HOSTAGE'S PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE HIJACKING OF FLIGHT 847 by Kurt Carlson (Congdon & Weed; $13.95, illustrated).

May 25, 1986|Doyle McManus

In a stifling basement in Beirut last June, five hostages from a hijacked TWA jet came to a desperate, whispered decision: It was time to plan an escape. The same night, a rock star in New York--by improbable happenstance the brother of one of the hostages--began plotting a freelance commando raid to rescue the five men.

Happily, neither mission had to be attempted; the hostages were freed through negotiations instead. Unhappily for this book, however, the result is anticlimactic. Kurt Carlson, a roofing contractor from Rockford, Ill., has a good memory for detail and a nice eye for character, but his memoir of last summer's siege is very much a hostage's-eye view. Most of what he has to say will be familiar to anyone who has watched a television interview with any newly freed hostage: Our captors were alternately brutal and kind; they have grievances we little understood, and waiting for someone to negotiate our freedom was harrowing.

Still, Carlson's basement-level travelogue of Beirut is nicely drawn. And there is one notable lesson here: After so much sad experience, the United States government is still so maladroit at reassuring hostages' families that some, in frustration, begin plotting their own commando raids.

But most of Carlson's conclusions will come as no surprise. Beirut, he decides sagely, "is a place you don't want to be."

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