Climb every mountain.
Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
First Published: 20th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 12th January 2016
By 26, Cheryl Strayed had lost her mother, had multiple affairs as a result of the pain and confusion, and divorced her husband who she still loved, knowing that separating was the right thing to do. Looking back on a random shopping trip she’d taken, when she’d seen a guidebook about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed decided to up sticks and take up the challenge of travelling a large portion of it (without any preparation), hoping it would help her get back to herself and work out how to move on.
Wild is a memoir, a hybrid of travel report and spiritual (not religious) journey that includes both the day to day of Strayed’s literal journey and flashbacks to the past. Written up around 18 years after the events it rests on memory and diary notes.
I’ve written that last sentence now so we can deal with this part first – it’s best to know before going into Strayed’s memoir that a lot of time has passed since her journey and thus when something doesn’t sound quite true or realistic, it’s not necessarily made up, though of course it could be. There are a lot of anecdotes and repeated information, a lot of detail that is difficult to believe considering Strayed never mentions writing in her journal (instead falling asleep exhausted many times) and some things sound a little too… cute. It’s fair, in this book’s case, to say that Strayed probably isn’t lying – she has most likely forgotten a lot of details and had to rely on sketchy memories and other people’s memories to form conversations. Because she’s detailed a lot of conversations in great, well, detail.
It’s obviously a pity from this perspective that the journey happened so long ago, but the dubious quality of the book is not, at least, a drawback. Strayed doesn’t exactly impress upon you the fact she’s writing so late, but it’s not been hidden either. Who knows, perhaps some of it was written up and no one wanted to publish it at the time. Suffice to say it’s worth keeping all this mind, accepting that your doubts may be warranted, and then getting on with the book.
Because it’s a good book. Strayed is open about the fact she’s no seasoned hiker (and you’re not going to find Bill Bryson or the like here) but that’s part of the journey. Strayed learns to hike as she goes along, detailing plainly her silly, rash, decisions, her embarrassing moments, the times she was worried and wanted to quit, and this lack of knowledge means that the book is accessible to anyone who is interested in hiking, whatever their own experience. (It’s worth noting that Strayed doesn’t hike all of the trail, and a few times she hitch-hikes to bypass certain sections which can be a bit disappointing as a reader.)
Less humble is Strayed’s discussion of her family. There is an element of self-absorption in the book that’s pretty tolerable during the hiking sections but less so in flashbacks. Strayed casts herself as the golden child, putting herself on a pedestal and detailing the lack of time her siblings put into the event of their mother’s illness and the aftermath of her death. It could well be true, and certainly Strayed talks more objectively about her siblings later on, but it doesn’t do Strayed any favours. Most other people are given more thrift. Strayed’s ex-husband is blameless, indeed Strayed makes it clear it was her fault without going into apologies – it’s a fact, it happened, and now she’s got to move on. Fellow travellers fare differently depending on how they appeared and how they treated Strayed, quite naturally. For all this book is about solo hiking, there are meetings with many other people, too.
It’s true that whilst open and humble about her lack of hiking ability, Strayed has a lot of good luck on her journey and writes a lot of me-me-me paragraphs. This is where you have to know that this isn’t simply a travel memoir – the whole point of Strayed’s journey, whilst, yes, she certainly wants to be able to say she managed to hike the trail and celebrate such an accomplishment, is to move on from her mother’s death. But yes, it can at times become a bit much.
Now the prose itself is far from perfect but as an overall product, Wild is a good, easy, read. Strayed succeeds in taking you along with her to the point that you’ll likely feel as daunted, yes daunted, once the end is nigh – physical exertion aside, you’ll feel you’ve joined Strayed on the trail. As much as she looks back on her life she describes the landscape and offers an image clear enough that the lack of photography in the book is no drawback. What’s the landscape? Forest, desert, snow, sun, heavy rain – pretty much everything. There’s even a crater formally known as a volcano. And throughout Strayed carries her monstrous backpack, the shoes on her feet causing her no end of problems. (She’s pretty graphic about those problems; beware if you plan to read this book over lunch.)
Strayed discusses abortion, her affairs, her drug use, openly – almost to a fault. She swears casually. This is a book full of heart, full of personal truth, but it must be said there’s no big resolution, in fact the book ends quite suddenly with a purchased reward, a glimpse of what hindsight could have told her about the future, and nothing else. Clearly the takeaway is the journey, the journey on foot and the journey in mind.
A special mention must be made for the literary details. Strayed reports on the books she read during her trip, their subject matter, what she likes about them, and then their unfortunate end as she turns their extra pack weight into ashes. There’s a nice variety here and to show that books are important despite their sorry ends, there’s even a list of them at the back of the book in case you want to be well-read in a particular Cheryl Strayed manner.
Wild offers the chance to go on a long hike without moving a muscle. It offers a story of personal growth and redemption that’s earnest and unashamed, even inspiring. Should you read it? Yes; even after all the problems discussed, I still think you should.
January 13, 2016, 5:00 pm
Hmm, despite your reassurances, I’m still not convinced this is one for me. Great review though.
January 13, 2016, 11:45 pm
A lot of bloggers I love have highly recommended this book, so I’ll probably read it at some point. I was talking to someone recently about how few “road” books there are by women, and Wild came up as one, and Dead White Ladies was another. It’s interesting, cause I was reading reviews of them, it’s interesting how much both those books (and Eat Pray Love! also!) get dinged for the authors being self-absorbed; made me wonder how much of that is a result of gendered expectations. (Cause I did have that reaction to Dead White Ladies, and I felt annoyed when I finished the book.)
January 15, 2016, 5:45 pm
This one is on my audiobook TBL list! I’m not a hiker, so I won’t mind not having a lot of details about the trail!
January 16, 2016, 2:10 am
I just finished this and was tempted to read it because of the hype. I really liked it. Maybe it is because at my age, I know I could never accomplish such a journey. It is however about the journey, not necessarily the destination.I am obviously a lousy reviewer, because I could not be critical.
January 18, 2016, 10:23 am
Tracy: I think it’s worth reading, though I will say that’s insofar as as much as you want to. I believe it deserves a chance, I suppose.
Jenny: The thing with Wild is it also feels like self-promotion, and there is that question of why she wrote it now rather than back then. The same in a book by a male author would likely come across similarly, though perhaps people would view it differently, I don’t know. I’d say marketing played a big role – I’ve read lots of reviews by hikers who were disappointed because there wasn’t enough about the trail in it when the adverts and promotional material suggested lots of detail in that regard; I’d venture expectations as a whole were the influence.
Laurie: It’s definitely less of a problem if you’re not a hiker, though it does still affect the reading nonetheless. At the end of the day, though, if you know it going in it’s better.
Judy: That’s true, it is about the journey, though I think with the amount of time she spends talking about the need to right herself the way it ends could be considered unsatisfactory (again I think it’s down to what you take out of it, what you enjoyed). You’re not a lousy reviewer at all – even in this short comment you’ve made the point about it being about the journey rather than the destination :)