To Tell the Truth

Is it fact or is it fiction? The perplexing story behind The Long Walk.

"YOU WON'T BELIEVE THIS ONE," my oldest friend said as he handed the book to me last year.

The slim but powerful volume was THE LONG WALK , by Slavomir Rawicz, a cult classic of adventure writing. First published in Britain in 1956, it chronicles how Rawicz, a 25-year-old Polish cavalry officer, broke out of a Soviet labor camp in Siberia in the midst of World War II and ran for his life. With six companions, he trekked 3,000 agonizing miles across Asia, passing through Mongolia, war-torn China, and Tibet before reaching freedom in British India.

Rawicz dictated his story to a Fleet Street ghostwriter in a direct, understated voice that puts his hardships in staggering relief. Despite gritty suffering in deserts and fatal setbacks in icefields, the fugitives struggle southward month after month, surviving on solidarity and sheer guts. The book's triumphant but bitter ending leaves readers exhausted; legions of fans offer testimony on Amazon and other Web sites to the life-changing inspiration of Rawicz's heroism. Once out of print, the book now sells 30,000 copies a year, and has been reissued with a new introduction by Sebastian Junger. George Clooney's name has been thrown around to play Rawicz in a movie adaptation.

But ever since the book's first release, doubters have charged that The Long Walk is literally unbelievable, even a fraud and a hoax. British climber and expedition leader Eric Shipton reputedly hooted at the book's description of abominable snowmen; Hugh Richardson, Britain's longtime diplomat in Lhasa, cited dozens of errors in a 1957 review for the Himalayan Club Journal, and wondered "whether the story is a muddled and hazy reconstruction of an actual occurrence, or mere fiction."

I myself learned all this later, after I devoured The Long Walk with stunned enthusiasm. In retrospect, it does seem odd that Rawicz's Mongolians walk everywhere rather than ride horses, and dress in conical hats and pole their boats up meandering rivers; that sounds more like Vietnam. Rawicz describes going 12 days in the Gobi without water; I recall choking on dust there myself after just a few hours. And I didn't know what to make of Rawicz's story of meeting two yetis in the high Himalayas.

Rawicz, now 85 and living in England, stands by his story. But his London and American publishers both tell me they don't believe that every page of the book is strictly what the cover calls a "True Story." Rawicz has declined to produce records, photographs, witnesses, or the full identity and whereabouts of the other survivors.

Ghostwriters do embellish things (ask Marco Polo). Faced with deadly obstacles, men do manage to pull off the impossible (Shackleton, anyone?). And plenty of authentic adventurers have exaggerated their achievements (Admiral Byrd, call your office). So while The Long Walk may never earn a secure place among the true classics of survival, here's my advice: Enjoy it as the great thriller it is. But caveat lector—which is Latin, of course, for "you won't believe this one."

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