Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed

There's something about the vulnerability inherent in the art of memoir that makes reading them an exploration of the human condition. My exposure to memoir has been limited, but every time one of these stories lands on my reading list I know I am in for a special kind of journey. Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a gritty and honest reflection of the author's months log journey by foot across California and into Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Strayed took to the trail during the great meltdown of her life. Her mother died from cancer at the age of 45 which sent her into a grief driven downward spiral resulting in cheating on her husband, a heartbreaking divorce and a heroin addiction. All of this is revealed to the reader in flashbacks as Strayed makes progress on the trail. Strayed's prose is deliberate and clear, which makes following this clueless 26-year-old on a dangerous solo journey through the pacific wilderness a little less infuriating than if she attempted to sugar coat all of her reckless decisions.

Strayed doesn't even read the PCT Guidebook until she is on the actual trail. Her preparation for the months long hike is pieced together through minimal research and REI associates. She's under funded, over encumbered and completely unprepared for the physical and psychological demands of the trail. Yet, there is something within her that drives her to take this "walkabout" of sorts, something that knows the time away from her crumbling life in solitude will reunite her with herself. 

Of course she's not entirely on her own, Strayed occasionally runs into other hikers and camps with them, and of course there is Monster, her ridiculously large backpack. Monster becomes a constant and painful companion for Strayed resulting in many humorous scenarios that anyone better prepared would have avoided. I wasn't sure how this memoir would work with spending so much time in Strayed's head as she hiked, but I thought that balance was beautiful. 

The emotional intensity of her memories from her abandoned previous life fluctuated, but there were some that hit me in an emotional soft spot and then came the tears. Strayed's admiration and love for her mother is so real that the sudden and tragic loss of her at such a young age seems like a crime. All of the reckless behavior that follows the loss of her mother is the clear example of an angry young woman who feels cheated by a god she describes as a "ruthless bitch." What happens on the PCT doesn't right change what happened in the past, but it does change Cheryl in the most fundamental way; she confronts her anger with her mother, god, and herself and she deals with it. She doesn't use sex or drugs to escape her feelings - she owns them and wears her emotional scars like the physical ones her journey has created. 

There are a couple of things Strayed really excels at in this memoir, and making me identify with her physical pain and her extreme thirst and hunger were among them. She finds out that the boots she bought for the trail are actually too small, and what results is the kind of foot pain that made me cringe. There were a couple times when I actually feared for her as she ran out of water or ran into men with questionable intentions. This also stoked a feeling of injustice within me when I thought about how unfair it was that men don't have to worry about the type of danger that women do when alone in the world. 

Strayed's journey ends at The Bridge of the Gods, which seems perfectly fitting. She celebrates the completion of her journey with an ice cream cone with the last bit of money she has. The conclusion wasn't packed full of insight and reflection on what she'd accomplished, and I was glad, because I knew what she accomplished, I was with her the whole way, so I loved the simplicity of the ending. Strayed doesn't force a bunch of spiritual jargon on her readers, and yet when she hoots back at the owl, I knew she is communing with God. When she sees the fox and calls after it when it leaves, calling for her mother, I knew she was experiencing the loss all over again. The subtext here does a beautiful job of instilling in readers a deeper understanding of everything that is happening without having it all spelled out. 

The 20 years between the hike and Strayed's publishing her memoir really allowed her the time to reflect on what happened to her and deliver it to readers in a way that they would understand and be moved. This is the book that made Oprah reconvene her book club. It's impact is only something you can experience by taking the journey with Strayed and allowing yourself to be uncomfortable, sad, understanding and moved. 

I have high hopes for the movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. Strayed had involvement with the production of the movie and she and Witherspoon worked closely, so I am really looking forward to seeing this story portrayed on the big screen. I think that the subtext that Strayed did so well with will actually translate quite well, and I can't wait to see what Witherspoon does with her performance. To find out more about the move, click here.   

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