Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book Review: Wild

66. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

After I finished Wild, I had a profound desire to go and buy Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language. It is the one book that Strayed does not burn for fuel during her months-long hike on the Pacific Crest trail. She doesn't even need to read it so much as finger its pages, dreaming of what she already knows is inside.

Wild is not a perfect book. It is very much in Elizabeth Gilbert's vein of done rather than perfect. Strayed's lyricism and authenticity is shown to its best advantage not in her memoir, but in the columns she wrote as Dear Sugar printed in Tiny Beautiful Things, which was my favorite of the two books. Yet, while I was reading Tiny Beautiful Things, which I bought because I already knew I liked the Dear Sugar columns, I decided to finally read Wild as well. I meant to read it when it came out, and then I meant to read it when the movie came out, and then I read so many negative reviews about how whiny the book was that it fell toward the bottom of my TBR list.

I get those reviews. I get how this book could come across as whiny. But it's a memoir about a woman who's lost her mother and who's lost her way and who is struggling with that. There is going to be whining.

Strayed didn't bother me. She didn't come across to me as unusually selfish or hateful or entitled. She comes across as human and full of mistakes, and to me, that was genuine and comforting. I cared about how she felt and about her struggles. Sure, when she filled her backpack (aptly named "Monster") with accoutrements and books and accessories and toiletries, I thought, "Okay, come on, when is she going to realize it's too much?" And she keeps on stubbornly lifting that heavy backpack off beds and tables and the ground (because it's so heavy she can't pick it up to put it on without leverage) through miles and miles, and I would never do that, and no hiker or backpacker I know would ever do that, but she does it (until, finally, thankfully, one of the other hikers helps her purge a bit and she starts burning pages she's already read). It's stupid, and dangerous, especially as she hikes over desert, and later icy mountains, but it's recognizably human, even if I personally don't relate. I also don't relate at all to her heroin usage, because I'm sure I would never do something like that, but still, it's a human thing to do, and it's a way that humans react to pain.

I also realize that I would be way too chicken to ever hike the PCT. I've hiked small parts of the AT, and the idea of hiking larger parts of it, or possibly even all or most of it one day appeals to me. From the way her book made it sound, I've probably done more hiking and backpacking than Strayed had done when she set off. But I would never have the chutzpah to hike the terrain that she did, and she not only survived, she persevered. Overall, it's an interesting and inspiring and very real story, and I think anyone with an interest in hiking the PCT or who wants to find comfort in another's struggle with love and loss should take a look at Wild.

There are hints in the memoir of the wisdom and lyricism of Dear Sugar, and from the way it seems that Strayed internalized it, I wonder if The Dream of a Common Language found its way into both.

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