Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed

I did not love Wild. I read it quickly, because Olivia's favorite nap location is "on Mom," but I did not love it. In fact, I had a journal open next to me the whole time so I could keep track of my gripes with it. Not a good sign for the book, but it ended up coming in handy for this post! If only I were so organized all the time...

My biggest problem with this memoir is that it's told in the wrong order. Strayed opens her story by diving straight into the "action," i.e. the events that pushed her to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. I get the logic; it's a pretty common writer's trick to hook the reader. In this case, however, she only succeeds in introducing herself as an out-of-control twenty-something who trashed a good marriage and needed an intervention about her new heroin habit, all because her mother died too young. For full disclosure, I haven't lost a parent, so I can only imagine the pain and sense of dislocation that would follow this kind of tragedy. Still, I've watched other people close to me go through this loss without totally self-destructing, so I couldn't figure out what caused Strayed to fly so far off the handle. It's not until halfway through the book, when she's already out on the trail, that we learn more about her background, including the fact that her mom was essentially her one lifeline in a tumultuous childhood first featuring an abusive father and later a chain of not-so-worthy replacements. At that point, things started making more sense, and I found some true sympathy for her. So my question is, why did she wait so long to lay that foundation for the reader? As it is, she runs the risk of alienating a lot of readers right from the start. I toyed with the idea of giving up before she even hit the trail, because I was so annoyed by the fact that she struck me as someone who'd rather use her problems as an excuse to act like an ass than work on actually solving them. I felt like I'd been put in her mother's position, forced to watch her act like an infuriating teenager.

Once I started to feel sympathetic, I did find other ways to connect with her, too. Her whole approach to hitting the trail felt exactly like a plan I might concoct; I too am often overly confident that pure determination can make up for whatever I lack in physical skill or knowledge about a situation. Take off on a serious thousand-mile hiking trip just to get away? That's a decision process I recognize. Stubborn but sometimes dumb.

Connecting with her allowed me to finish the book, and I really did enjoy the trail itself and the people she met along the way. I have to see those mountains someday (although I'd be perfectly happy with a couple of day-long hikes instead of several months on the trail!). Overall, though, I wouldn't recommend this one. Those first hundred pages or so are just too choppy and the narrator too grating for my taste.

I followed it up with Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern, which was small enough for me to start and finish in one evening. Not too deep and definitely chuckle-inducing, it was a good palate-cleanser before I start the next book. If you find yourself in need of a laugh, this one's worth reading!

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