Quicksand and the Butterfly
Myths in Non-fiction and the legend of quicksand.
reflective, nonfiction, literature
February 28, 2015


A few nights ago, I happened to catch a Weather Channel program on the dangers of nature--it’s one scary beast (“Damn, nature! You scary!”) One segment was about quicksand. As it’s often depicted as a perilous antagonist in cinema and television, I was curious as to what it had to say.

The most interesting part was that people don’t drown in quicksand.

What? But the movies! But Hollywood! They most certainly do too drown. I saw it happen on the big screen. They...couldn’! They couldn’t make it all up!

Turns out they were, and they could. Heck, maybe some writers don’t even know what actually happens. I never did. They probably just get their facts from other Hollywood movies.

But quicksand allows a person to sink up to the waist or so, and then the person’s buoyancy equals out and sinking stops. Although the person is still stuck, and at that point, nature’s other killers can take over: heat exposure, cold exposure, or drowning from incoming tides. Or maybe a hungry bear comes along--though it would get stuck too, hopefully several feet away.

The “grip” that quicksand has is amazing though, as one man stuck in it could not be freed even when gripping the skids of a helicopter that was lifting up. It’s a very intense force going on beneath the surface. What does work is vibrating the legs quickly and slowly lifting each one out. Or if a heavy amount of water can be introduced into the surrounding area. A great deal of digging can also work. Obviously, the latter two need the help of others.

Okay, now that more of us know the truth, I guess we can expect that motif to appear less frequently on screen, but why the Butterfly?

The Butterfly is Papillion. Well, that’s French for butterfly and the name of a novel by Henri Charriere, who was imprisoned on Devil’s Island (true) and escaped (true) and then a whole bunch of amazing, unbelievable things happened to him (mostly true).

(Or partially true)

(Or a tiny bit true?)

Heck, I have absolutely no idea.

Henri did admit at one point that his book was 75% true. Another critic said he guessed it to be 10% true. But even if it’s in the middle of that, how am I suppose to know what parts are legit and which parts are invented?

Quicksand reminded me of the book because in it, he writes about a fellow escaping convict who was on a small raft and got out of the boat too early and was swallowed up by quicksand--all the while ignoring Henri’s shouts, pleas, and warnings.

We also read about a very smart pig who knew which spots in the ground were secretly quicksand, and the men would follow the pig each day to the hiding spot. There’s also a rooster that works as a kind of sheep dog. Sounds like “Animal Farm”? Maybe he borrowed from that too.

Well, okay, okay. Why does it matter? In a way, it does not. The novel is entertaining. It was fun for me to read and I burned through it in days. Still, it matters because I thought--or was led to believe--I was learning something. I was receiving a true story, to the best of his ability to remember it anyway. I learned about smart pigs and savvy roosters and how quicksand can sink a man and drown him.

Aside from the fact that it cannot.

I can understand a little embellishing in a novel. Everyone does it, though often the straight truth is far more fascinating than anything one can make up. But when it goes too far--as in the case of “Papillion,” it ruins the whole story. It becomes complete fiction, with some fact thrown in.

It’s fine if that’s known. In Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” he writes in the first person and narrates remarkably well, as if it actually happened to him, although we know it’s a story. We also can research and find out that there were parts of his life that he experienced which were similar to some events in the novel. Fine by me. Makes it even more fun to read. Go, go, Defoe!

Now, even when I see a western at the movies these days, it’s not my first rodeo. I know the deal. Hollywood is very fuzzy about “true stories.” Sometimes they do openly admit it and start the movie with “Based on a true story.” That works for me, though I really like the opening of “American Hustle” best: “Some of this actually happened.”

Luckily, the Internet helps shed lights on eschewed fact checking of Hollywood. Look up “Cinderella Man” for some eye-opening facts. I suppose we all know the problems with “Titanic,” though I still find it quite entertaining. It’s hard when it’s an epic moment in history. I mean, the movie was a movie, not a documentary. “Murder in the First” was just atrocious in its complete failure to get even half the facts correct. Complete fiction, it pretty much is. Even the admirable “Schindler’s List” has a few problems that most will not notice or care about--and they are not big deals either.

But in literature? In books sold under fact? Hmm. I don’t know. Then it’s harder to accept such erroneous information. I shouldn’t have to fact-check after reading a novel that is supposed to be a true story. Perhaps I’m being obtuse.

With “Papillion,” I no longer tell people about the unbelievable things that he went through. I don’t know if a pig really can sniff out quicksand, or if a rooster really can work as a sheepdog. But I do know this...

You don’t drown in quicksand.