Wild by Cheryl Strayed
As you can imagine, working at a bookstore has done some serious damage to the reading spreadsheet, which is large enough to start looking for a job. Books used to haunt me by turning up under my questing fingers in libraries or thrift stores; now, they stare me down as I refresh displays and make sure the overstock piles aren’t going to fall over and knock me unconscious. While the exposure is much more constant, I still get those serendipitous hauntings. A used copy of Mystic Vision: The Making of Eragon turned up at the store months ago and I’m still pretending that it’s not going to come home with me. At this point in that film’s life, it’s pretty clear that it was meant to cross the path of someone who loves crap fantasy films.
Wild is, however, not one of those serendipitous hauntings. Rather, I’ve been beaten over the head with how much I want to read it, to the point that it began to feel like the universe was nagging me. But you loved Tiny Beautiful Things!, said every paperback copy I sold as I placed it into a bag. Such obligation does not incline me towards reading; I was once, after all, the girl who willfully repressed any memory of Silas Marner because her mother made her read it before she could get her grubby mitts on Good Omens. But, determined to introduce my mother to Cheryl Strayed, I got her Wild for Christmas, which finally made me get up and do something to quiet that cosmic nagging.
Because of said haunting, I ended up overhyping myself for Wild. I loved Tiny Beautiful Things so much that the odds were actually against Strayed’s actual memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother and a few wandering, disastrous years. That might say something more about my attention span than Strayed’s evolution as a writer. But while it certainly has some, Wild lacks the bracing bite of Strayed’s work as Dear Sugar. This is only because Strayed is looking at a single case study instead of exploring dozens. Dear Sugar is also much more concentrated Strayed, since it was curated from that column. However, When the bite comes, it’s brutally brilliant: the way Strayed’s grief catches up with her in fits and spurts, for instance, as well as the story of her mother’s cremation. For Strayed, the Pacific Crest Trail is a bit like a dream. Not in the comforting sense: it’s a physically grueling experience for Strayed, who had never hiked before embarking on the trail. But rather that Strayed is on her own and traveling into the varied, dreamlike landscapes of the mountains. Dreams are our subconscious’ way of making sense of the random events of our days, occasionally weaving together a coherent message while we’re not looking. (“Do not sacrifice yourself for the approval of others,” my subconscious told me the other night, in its usual bizarre, terrifying way.)
Strayed’s journey is a self-conscious choice to force that kind of sense-making on herself. What she initially envisioned as a dreamy way to move on from her mother’s death is actually a grueling moving meditation on her life and her place in the world. As her body transforms under the demands of the trail, her mind begins to transform. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail gives her, so adrift in this world, an identity to hang onto: the Queen of the Pacific Crest Trail, the woman who can take kindness with an open heart and make it in the world with only two cents to her name. We construct our identities out of the stories and legends we tell about ourselves. I often tell people about my cosmic bond with dogs by telling them the story of how I almost lost an eye to a dog as a small child and showing them the scars, because that story says something about me, dogs, and that optimistic stubbornness I often call stupid because I’m a little ashamed of it. Sometimes, when there’s nowhere to turn, we have to go out and write the story for ourselves, and Strayed’s memoir is a lovely testament to that fact.
Bottom line: While it can’t surpass Strayed’s work as Dear Sugar—few things can—Wild is a lovely testament to writing our own stories to move forward. Quite good.
I rented this book from the library.