Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Pacific coast trail

None of us will get out of here alive.

We will all be beaten and battered by a callous world filled with unthinking, unfeeling people who care little for our suffering, except as it affects their own.

I used to think that I was singular, that my suffering was singularly intense and devastating. Now I know better.

At the 25th anniversary reunion for my junior high school class, I found myself in deep with old friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen since high school. A few had led charmed lives, but most of us carried a world weariness, and untold heartaches that were impossible to hide. Here was Tracy; the man she had married had been taken by brain cancer, and now hardly knew who she was. Over there was a kind woman who had been badly abused by her ex-husband. Both of George’s parents would pass away within four months of our meeting. Debbie longed to join us, but couldn’t find the strength because her daughter had just died.

It was difficult for me because, in my twelfth year of daily migraines, I was hanging by my fingernails, my hands bloody and raw. I was embarrassed by my circumstances. I was noteworthy only because I was still alive.

So I understand what it means to feel broken, and that’s why I picked up Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and couldn’t put it down. In her unfathomable pain, I found my own journey in this world reflected.

Wild recounts the adventure that Strayed undertook in the mid-1990s when, as troubled 26-year-old, she hiked alone along Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. To describe her life as a hot mess is generous. To describe her preparation as pathetically inept is kind. Her backpack, which she quickly dubs Monster, weighs half as much as she does, so she can barely hoist it, let alone walk any distance. Her boots are too small for her feet, and within days her swollen, bruised feet start dropping toenails to mark her progress. She grows so callused that her hips and shoulders resemble a tortoise shell, and she’s embarrassed to be seen naked.

Strayed has just lost her middle-aged mother to lung cancer, and that loss is consuming her from the inside. She adored and admired her mother — even through a healthy dose of youthful distain — and played the dutiful daughter with ferocity during her brief illness. Halfway into the process of growing into her own life, Strayed is shattered by the loss, then shatters what remains of her life. Within a year, her family disintegrates, she loses the good, strong man she married by engaging in serial infidelity, and starts shooting heroin with a roguish lover. When her journey begins, she still has purplish-yellow needle tracks along her ankle.

And yet, despite the physical discomfort over an arduous journey, nothing catastrophic befalls our heroine. She neither has to outsmart ravenous bears, nor does she drink contaminated water, and writhe in pain for days. Her most serious trials occur through her own stupidity and miscalculations.

And yet, despite the vast number of times I shook my head in disbelief, I enjoyed Wild immensely because I found the author quirky and charming. And that’s the real story here, how one lost woman knew instinctively how to find herself again by testing her body and mind in ways few of us ever do. I recognized her budding inner strength because I’ve made a similar journey through the proverbial baptism by fire. Discomfort and pain can become a suit of armor that protects from the slings and arrows of everyday life.

The longest journey must begin with a single step. In this case, the meandering trail was an internal journey that transformed a broken young woman into someone who could be a writer.

Cheryl Strayed proved tough and strong-willed, of course, or Wild would exist only as a short story. It’s a remarkable journey, filled with friendship, insight, and simple joy. I was pulling for Strayed with every step, knowing that she was too young to be so alone in the world. She’s somehow sympathetic and uncompromisingly honest, and many have been moved by her brokenness.

Reviewers have certainly gushed. “One of the most original, heartbreaking, and beautiful American memoirs in years,” suggests NPR Books. “An addictive, gorgeous book that not only entertains,” The Boston Globe opines, “but leaves us the better for having read it.” Dwight Garner, book critic at The New York Times, says that Wild totally unmanned him, and left him “obliterated” and “puddle-eyed.”

Frankly, I’m mystified. Though I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir, I couldn’t quite figure out how Wild made Strayed into a celebrity, and brought the book to the Big Screen in a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. But it is a poignant book, filled with life and resonance. During one impossible scene where Strayed described euthanizing her mother’s cherished horse, I was moved to tears. The event is the very definition of heartbreaking.

Perhaps I’m judging this book by the four-star reviews on its cover, but it feels incomplete. I wanted the writing to be the loftier, and to glean more insight from a 46-year-old woman surveying her 26-year-old life. But it’s not there. This is very much like the book I suspect Strayed would have written five years after her adventure. It has passages of crystal clear beauty, followed by some unexpected longueurs where I zoned out.

Wild comes very close to something like redemption in the final chapter after Strayed ponders how her life changed in her search for meaning and acceptance. Tears filled my eyes at her soft, gentle epiphany, perfectly rendered.

But it was not quite enough for greatness.

After I finished Wild, I couldn’t help myself. I pondered the nature of Strayed’s celebrity. I know many writers who love her essays, and her Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus was weird and wise. Torch, her first book, was warmly reviewed by critics.

She seemed to be carving out a fine, if unspectacular career. So what changed?

Something every writer dreams about. Oprah Winfrey read Wild, and announced that Strayed’s memoir would be the inaugural selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Wild had a brief run on The New York Times’ Bestseller List before Oprah catapulted it to the number one slot for weeks, and it stayed on the list for months. It became a huge bestseller, and was eventually published in 30 languages.

Anything that brings nonfiction to popular attention is a very good thing, and I found myself wanting good things to happen to the young woman in Wild.

Now if only it could happen to a few more authors who deserve it at least as much.

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