I recently finished WILD by Cheryl Strayed. First impression: Surprising.
Just like the Reese Witherspoon movie it spawned, the Wild book is surprisingly entertaining, engaging and moving. Now, I’ve never perused the pages of ‘memoir’ before; it’s always been an unappealing foreign genre to me, like BDSM or fanfic erotica—it just never seemed worth my valuable reading time, know-what-I-mean-Vern?
But because I enjoyed the movie, I decided to give the Strayed memoir a whirl. (How’s that for a bibliophile twist? Usually it’s the other way around, and the movies almost never live up.)
The most surprising thing about liking the book is that the character (non-fiction person, if we’re being PC) should have been unappealing to me: she got pregnant without knowing the identity of the inseminator (wow that’s an actual word?), had an abortion but simply glosses over this serious business with a single passive sentence. All her grief and guilt and suffering, described in simple but poignant prose, have nothing to do with this action. That bothered me. She starts doing drugs and fooling around. Cheryl describes in great detail her adulterous ways (though I don’t recall if she uses this term at all). These are choices she made as a woman and a wife, things that should on paper make her an unlikeable character, and yet, such is her surprising writing skill and inherent humility and charm, that you cannot help but overlook these things.
She gets you to like her
She does this in much the same way George R.R. Martin gets us to like despicable characters like child-thrower Jaime Lannister and fiend Theon: by putting them through the ringer. And Cheryl certainly puts herself through the ringer on the PCT. Her struggles, conveyed through simple, elegant prose, and a rather alarming and disarming honesty about her flaws, make us to like her.
In fact, I am convinced that the deep appeal of the book lies in this facet. Her willingness to own her flaws and mistakes and to expose the raw heart of her pain and weakness win us over
That is the mark of a smart writer.
I haven’t read any other memoirs, so I can’t compare this gift to other memoirists (my spell-check says that’s a real word! I never used it before). But I’d put top dollar down that few memoirists (definitely my word for the week) possess this innate talent.
Another way to know that an author has the goods, especially where it concerns non-fiction, is if at the end of their work you feel the desire, the inspiration, to do as they have done.
I’m talking about hiking the PCT, not the whole baby-killing and drugs and infidelity stuff, of course. It’s interesting that you should wish to follow that trail after reading in great detail all the horrors and struggles she endured on it. But Cheryl manages to convey the surprising appeal of hiking and spending your evenings alone, like in the wild totally alone. She shares how much she appreciates and enjoys the company of strangers-turned-fast-friends, these kindred spirits she runs into on the trail and at the trail stop villages. And yet you can sense between the words—and when she directly mentions it—a desire for solitude, to resume her trek alone.
This occasional aloneness might just be an essential necessity of life, one most of us never has the chance to experience. I believe the timing, just a few years before cell phones came out and became everybody’s personal Jarvis, is also a major part of the appeal. If she’d had a cell on her, that would have changed the entire nature of her trek. Probably it would have prevented her from absorbing all the benefits of a solitary journey on the PCT.
One last bit of praise for Wild. (SPOILERS!)
That horse killing sequence was gut-wrenching. Seriously people, reading has rarely displayed the power to move me to tears, but that scene almost made me weep. For real! Peepers watered, jaw ached for release. I didn’t cry—but only because I swallowed that stuff down like a true thug, and I didn’t want anyone seeing me suddenly break into tears reading a book called Wild.
As a writer, I know that this powerful scene was earned.
You can’t just stumble on it and be moved. You have to devour all that has come before it, the references and scenes involving that horse, her mother’s devotion to it, Eddie’s stupid lazy neglect of poor Lady. It all comes to a head in the heart-wrenching scene with her brother Leif. Lady is in many ways Cheryl’s last living totem of her mother’s spirit, her zest for life. Killing this horse represents saying goodbye, in a way that all the grief and rage, cheating and drugs and therapy had not accomplished.
A thoroughly satisfying book. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to be cured of themselves, to be drawn away to another (part of the) world, a tough-grind place filled with snakes, bears, bulls, drunken forest rangers, beer-guzzling bowhunters, and Three Young Bucks who’ll eat cake straight out of your hand.
This emotionally honest work deserves to be read.