One-Minute Book Reviews

June 21, 2013

Why I’m Not Wild About Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:54 pm
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A memoir captures the romance of hiking but raises questions about the trustworthiness of its story

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. By Cheryl Strayed. Vintage, 336 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1982 Steven Callahan spent 76 days floating on an inflatable raft in the Atlantic after his sailboat sank on a trip from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. A few years later, he described a risk of writing about that ordeal in the preface to his memoir, Adrift: “Of course, I can never be completely sure that all my conclusions are exactly what I felt then rather than new insights.”

That kind of honesty helped to make Adrift one of the great seafaring memoirs of the past quarter-century. And it’s part of what’s missing from Cheryl Strayed’s account of how, at the age of 26, she hiked for more than 1100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Southern California to the Oregon-Washington Border.

Strayed evokes with considerable skill the romance and peril of traveling alone through rugged terrain that, if “beautiful and austere,” sheltered bears, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. And she gives a lively sense of the camaraderie among hikers whose paths cross and re-cross on a long trail. One couple thrilled her by leaving a peach for her on a picnic table at a time when granola and Better Than Milk amounted to a feast and when “fresh fruit and vegetables competed with Snapple lemonade in my food fantasy mind.”

But Wild tells you many things you don’t need to know while omitting those you do. Strayed reports that in her first six weeks on the trail, she “hadn’t even masturbated, too wrecked by the end of each day to do anything but read and too repulsed by my own sweaty stench for my mind to move in any direction but sleep.” (She made up for lost time at an Oregon hostel where she “lay awake for an hour, running my hands over … the mounds of my breasts and the plain [sic] of my abdomen and the coarse hair of my pudenda.”) And yet, for all the intimate details like those, Strayed doesn’t answer big questions such as: Why didn’t Wild appear in print until 17 years after she took her three-month trip the summer of 1995? How do we know that the thoughts she says she had on the trail occurred then and not years later as she shaped her story for publication? Aren’t some of the line-by-line conversations in her book far too long for her to have transcribed in the journal she carried with her?

These questions matter because Strayed casts Wild not as a conventional travel memoir but as a secular sin-and-redemption tale. She styles her hike as a trip she took to heal or “to save myself” from a self-destructive spiral set in motion by painful events that began more than four years earlier with the death of her mother. In the months just before her trip, Strayed had extramarital affairs, left her husband, and aborted a pregnancy that resulted from a fling. She also used heroin. Strayed says she knew it was wrong to cheat on a husband she loved, but her mother’s death had left her unable to control herself: “So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself?”

Strayed carried her instinct for rationalization with her as she navigated forest paths and rocky ledges with a backpack that “seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” Near end of her hike, she followed a man she had just met into his truck, where he asked if she wanted some “chewable opium. “Sure,” she replied. Later that night, she drove off with another stranger and realized that “there was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”

So when did the healing occur? In the last pages of Wild, Strayed says vaguely that she was sitting beside the Columbia River thinking about how long she had carried the emotional weight of her mother’s death: “And something inside of me released.” But it was not until 15 years after her trip, when she returned to the area with a second husband and two children “that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed.” As she tells it, her New Age-y “secret” sounds like a cross between a Beatles lyric (“let it be”) and a bumper sticker about the value of “seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water.” What if the fish were sharks?

Strayed’s explanation for how her trip helped “save” her is so coy and unpersuasive that you wonder if something else isn’t at work. The 17 years between her hike and the publication of her book brought a lucrative crop of high-profile memoirs — most notably, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love — that treat rigorous journeys as therapy for divorce or other sorrowful events.  Did Strayed reposition her story at some point to catch a piece of the trend?

If so, she has reached her goal at a cost to her credibility. Like Eat, Pray, Love, Wild implies that you can fix a broken life by taking an ambitious vacation. Gilbert casts “recovery” as form of consumerism, and Strayed turns it into an extreme sport. Both ideas are suspect. Any therapist — or anyone who has left a marriage or lost a parent — will tell you that what makes grief less acute is not an extended vacation but time. Strayed’s failure to deal adequately with this issue involves more than ethics: It raises questions about trustworthiness of the emotional core of her book.

Best line: “My backpack was no longer on the floor. … it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.”

Worst Line: Strayed writes of extramarital affairs she had years after her mother died: “Though I’d had attractions to other men since shortly after we married, I’d kept them in check. But I couldn’t do that anymore. My grief [about my mother’s death] obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself? … I knew I was wrong to cheat [on my husband] and lie.”

Published: 2012 (Knopf hardcover), 2013 (Vintage paperback).

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2103 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

14 Comments »

  1. Thanks for your review. I’d been thinking about reading this book (if only because I used to live in the Pacific Northwest and did volunteer work on trails there), but I HATED “Eat Pray Love,” so I think I’ll give this one a pass.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — June 21, 2013 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks, Amanda. I read this because I love hiking and am a former Appalachian Mountain Club member. But “Wild” seems so (as a newspaper reporter on Twitter just put it) “contrived.” I wonder how these books strike divorced women who can’t afford to fly to Bali or to spend three months hiking to ease their sorrow over the end of a marriage.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 21, 2013 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

  3. I think your review is spot on. It is hard to believe this book is as popular as it is. Thanks for posting.

    Comment by bubbasuess — June 23, 2013 @ 2:52 am | Reply

    • Thanks! So many others have weighed in on “Wild” that I debated whether to write about it. I finally did so because some big issues raised by this book seem to have gone largely unexplored by reviewers.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 23, 2013 @ 12:38 pm | Reply

  4. I believe it’s how you read it that counts. If you are in the midst of tolerating a dissatisfying marriage and drowning out that little voice in the back of your mind that whispers “divorce”, then yes, Wild may incite bitterness and/or hope (like “Eat, Pray, Love”).

    However, I don’t believe Cheryl Strayed wrote “Wild” as a self-help book. In fact, I know she didn’t or else it’d be catalogued in the 150’s of the Dewey Decimal System not under 813.6 for American literature in the 21st century. It’s entirely your choice if you wish to seek advice from “Wild” but don’t judge her when you don’t like the taste of this self-prescribed medicine.

    Instead, please read it for her brutal honesty, the vivid monologues that touch core values (e̶v̶e̶n̶ especially if they’re ‘shameful’), and the way she makes you cry in the first chapter.

    Comment by Cara Bauck — September 18, 2013 @ 3:51 am | Reply

  5. […] interesting review of ‘Wild’ […]

    Pingback by ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and ‘Wild’: Women Who Ditch it All and Why I Don’t Care | Sarah Sousa — February 5, 2014 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  6. […] Posts Why I’m Not Wild About Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ |One-Minute Book Reviews Wild- Cheryl Strayed |the reading habit Haunting Book: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed |Story & History […]

    Pingback by Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words — February 5, 2014 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

  7. I’m going to chime in as this woman needs to be called out.

    I was a thru hiker on the PCT. My trail name was “Runningwolf” and is on the 2600 miler list on the pcta.org in 2012. And signed on the trail registers. Right to Canada. I also attempted in 2010, made 2007 miles and had to quit–injury. Not a big deal but I ran out of time before the snow in Washington. I didn’t even begin to start my written work of the account until I did complete the trail. From A to B. I started over from mile zero the second time.

    Strayed is despised by thru hikers. Many of us question whether she was even on the trail. There are many things that she claims that are far fetched for anyone who has actually done it.

    Lost a shoe and then defiantly tossed the other? The path would have torn her feet up. And we would all like to know where it occurred? Not in the area she was talking about for sure. 99.9% of the ridges don’t have that steep of a slope where you could not have scurried down and gotten it. And she didn’t realize her shoe was loose to begin with? The paths aren’t that narrow–what force with walking would have tossed it that far? The areas she is speaking of simply don’t have that steep a slope for that to have occurred.

    She almost died of thirst did she? Where? There are a few (like 2-3) where you go 20 miles- 30 miles between water–if there weren’t trail angels leaving caches. Can’t speak for 20 years ago but they have been there for years when I went through. I missed a cache on a 29 mile stretch just past Old Station on Hat Rim. Walked right by it in a zone. I was very uncomfortable for about four hours. I didn’t “almost die of thirst.” Even at 104 degrees.

    Parts were “impassable.” Due to snow I assume. And they aren’t–they are just slow and hard. We went through them and she didn’t. In 2010 the snow was record in the Sierras. That record was broken a year later in 2011. People made it through the Sierras. I did. Others did.

    1100 miles from the Mojave to Washington. That would have been about 1500-1600 actually. So she skipped a lot. She did not do the Bataan death march. She section hiked–taking an entire summer to do 1100 miles. Got to rest a lot and hitch hike or bus between sections. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t try to over dramatize it Cheryl. You didn’t do an arduous journey. You took a vacation with hikes in-between. Even those of us who completed the entire trail didn’t have nearly the drama you claim to have had.

    She didn’t walk the distance daily like we did. She didn’t even complete half the trail. Her tales just don’t add up. But it was “girl power” for Oprah …

    Do some research on the trail itself. Hell, get a terrain map and look for the cliffs that are supposedly there where she couldn’t regain her shoe. Then you decide whether she placed in an event of great hardship or is guilty of hiker stolen valor.

    Comment by Charles Hurst-Author — September 24, 2014 @ 10:44 pm | Reply

  8. I dislike the entire notion of self-indulgently running away when things get tough. I never read “Eat, Pray, Love” because it just isn’t my thing, and I think I’ll take a pass on this as well.

    Comment by D. D. Syrdal — September 26, 2014 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

  9. I felt she was a phony from the first time I saw her being interviewed. What gets me is that most of us have suffered the loss of our mothers and fathers and we don’t self-destruct and hurt others. As mature adults, we still continue on with the various responsibilities we have to do. Self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and childish but I suppose it’s made her a fortune. We know where her real priorities lie……

    Comment by Lynne Morris — October 13, 2014 @ 12:44 pm | Reply

  10. I lost my mother as a pre-teen. I was very vulnerable, but it never occurred to me to go boy crazy or get into drugs. Cheryl Strayed just seems unstable even prior to her mother’s battle with cancer. She makes her readers very aware of her admiration of Alice Munro, whose first book. Dance of the Happy Shades was published in 1968. The story ( in that book ), Boys and Girls, about Munro’s horse getting put down is very similar to Strayed’s story about her own horse.

    Comment by Barbara Pelletier — November 9, 2014 @ 8:20 am | Reply

  11. The movie version got a very bad review in our local press. Pretty much along these lines. On the other hand, like Passages, another over-hyped book (which was actually based on stolen research material), this sells.

    Comment by rangerdon — December 15, 2014 @ 11:26 pm | Reply


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