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Waiting 90 Days for Imminent Death

06/18/2013 12:27 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2013

Impossible Odds, The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six
By Jessica Buchanan, Erik Landemalm, Anthony Flacco
Released: June 10, 2013
Publisher: Atria Books (320 pages)

"... spellbinding ..."

The imminent possibly of being executed by a terrorist, feeling the point of a rifle at the back of your head is an experience most can't possibly comprehend. Thirty-two-year-old humanitarian worker Jessica Buchanan endured this reality of imminent death during her three-month kidnapping by Somali pirates.

Her book describes in amazing detail, day by day, minute by minute, her horrific ordeal.

Ms. Buchanan was taken October 25, 2011, and rescued by U.S. Seal Team Six on January 25, 2012. Impossible Odds, The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six takes the reader inside her experience.

Somalia is plagued by a social breakdown complicated by starvation of its people and economic problems not unlike other sub-Saharan African countries.

The child of a religious Christian family in Ohio, Ms. Buchanan entered her profession and destination of Somalia, an African country on the horn of Africa thousands of miles from home with an idealistic perspective -- not unlike most young people: with a mission to save the world.

There she met her Swedish husband, Erik Landemalm, a legal and human rights program manager, an equally committed worker. It is clear from their story they have a strong bond that kept them hopeful, indeed, helped them emotionally survive this dreadful ordeal.

NGO workers were located north of the Green Line, the divide between Somalia's warring factions. South of the Green Line was under the rule of the Islamic extremist faction al Shabab and was home to the violent outbursts and Somali pirates.

It was during this fateful trip by Ms. Buchanan and her Danish colleague, 60-year-old Mr. Paul Thisted, to a training mission south of the line where they were kidnapped while returning to the guesthouse and safety.

It's a scene out of a thriller movie, but only too real. The author recounts in painful detail being forced to her knees, waiting for her final moments of life to end.

"I discovered a special form of living hell in that combination of helplessness and terror to be endured while waiting for execution."

Biological functions were an additional humiliating experiencem surrounded by violent men with big guns jacked up chewing on an amphetamine producing plant, khat, a plant native to the Horn of Africa.

Ms. Buchanan's capacity to recall in detail the personalities and her relationships with each of her captors enhances the readers experience beyond the daily terror of imminent demise. Her ability to analyze her captors is indeed impressive. Her knowledge of the culture saves her from being raped. She tells her captors she is a mother, knowing enough about the Somali men that mothers are considered special and therefore not to be defiled.

The book goes off track a bit during her capture. There is a lack of a sensory experience of the pain she is going through of a serious bladder infection, complications of a lack of necessary thyroid medication, dehydration, and the effects of a lack of sanitary eating conditions. She skims over her personal maladies, an approach that removes the immediacy from what turned out to be so serious that she was in danger of dying had she not been rescued. The gravity of her health does not become apparent until the end of the book.

These small deviations do not diminish the reality of Ms. Buchanan's story of enduring -- and surviving -- three months never knowing if she will live another day or see her husband and family again.

Her rescue by Seal Team Six is brilliantly drawn out with a slow, apprehensive lead-up to the sudden burst of gunfire and boots rushing through the brush. Ms. Buchanan, so used to sudden and erratic changes by her captors, registers this event as an attack from a rival faction.

Reentry is a gut-wrenching process where Ms. Buchanan describes the incomprehensible experience of taking a shower for the first time in 90 days.

"The dirt rinsed away well enough, but how dark were the stains on me going to be in the long run? I stood in the thick steam under the luxury of running water and safety and privacy, wondering who was under the hot spray."

The book is spellbinding. Fiction cannot come close to the reality of Impossible Odds. The story provides a compelling combination of horror and fascination, written with clarity and compassion.

Reviewer Geri Spieler is the award-winning author of Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She is also a member of the National Books Critics Circle.