One-Minute Book Reviews

February 5, 2016

Female Spies in the Civil War — Beyond Notes in the Fruitcake

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 pm
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When knitting with a Morse code–based pattern was women’s work

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. By Karen Abbott. HarperCollins, 513 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

A hoop skirt can hide a lot of secrets, not all of them sexual. Female spies for both the North and South made unique contributions to the Civil War by taking advantage of the voluminous clothing and other encumbrances of their sex, including the belief that they would pursue activities no riskier than rolling bandages or mending uniforms.

61r9btq72rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Karen Abbott tells the stories of four of these women and their accomplices, who operated mainly in Virginia and Washington, D.C, from 1861–1865. Their strategies included seducing enemy officers, knitting tapestries in a pattern based on Morse code, and arranging for the delivery of a fruitcake that had a secret letter baked into it instead of apples and raisins. One woman disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Union army. Not surprisingly, she impersonated a female peddler with aplomb as she sneaked past Rebel lines in an attempt to gather facts for Gen. George McClellan about the strength of Confederate forces in Richmond.

These spies’ stories make for such lively reading that you wish you could believe every word of them. Abbott says that she hasn’t invented dialogue but has “extrapolated” her characters’ thoughts from sources such as their letters or diaries or others’ books. In other words, she’s guessed.

Abbott also makes the dubious assertion that her subjects were “the war’s unsung heroes.” That description certainly fits the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, who used her Richmond mansion as a base for daring efforts to support the Union. To a lesser degree the label applies to Emma Edmondson, who masqueraded as a man in the 2d Michigan Infantry before she deserted. But what of the Confederate spies Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who spent their formidable energy and courage on an unjust cause? Even ardent feminists may have trouble finding an “unsung hero” in Greenhow, who wrote, while in Bermuda on her way to London on a mission for Jefferson Davis: “The negroes are lazy, vicious, and insubordinate.” It’s much easier to admire Van Lew, whose spy ring proved so effective that Ulysses Grant thanked her in a personal note: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Best line: Elizabeth Van Lew lent her servant Mary Jane Bowser to the wife of Jefferson Davis so that the Union would have a spy in the house of the Confederate president. When Mary Jane had gathered vital information, “she hung a red shirt on the laundry line” as a signal for Elizabeth to collect it. The book abounds with such memorable details.

Worst line: An echo of Seinfeld in a book about the Civil War: A Union soldier gave Belle Boyd a pistol that she “planned to regift to Stonewall Jackson.” Liar Temptress Soldier Spy also descends at times overwrought prose, such as: “All the breath rushed out of her and she felt turned inside out, whipped like laundry on a line.” Obviously, if all the breath “rushed out of her,” she couldn’t “feel turned inside out,” because she’d be dead.

About the author: Karen Abbott is a journalist who wrote Sin in the Second City and American Rose.

Second opinion: Jonathan Yardley reviewed Liar Temptress Soldier Spy for the Washington Post.

Published: 2014

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 15, 2015

Celebrating the Joys of a Decade of Beach Walks

Filed under: Nature,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:42 pm
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Meditations on the everyday appeal of a favorite beach

A Decade of Beach Walks. By George Thatcher. Quail Ridge Press, 239 pages, $12.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has seen too many used condoms and empty Red Bull cans on American beaches will find a gentle antidote in A Decade of Beach Walks. In this book George Thatcher collects more than 200 of the popular Scenes from the Beach columns that he has written since 2007 for the Sun Herald in Biloxi. Each entry consists of a brief, illustrated meditation on an inspiring sight he has seen during one of his daily walks along Mississippi Sound, such as a blue heron, a scallop shell, or a cluster of acorn barnacles. Thatcher focuses on the enduring charms of the beach, not on the damage that careless visitors do, but when piercing winds blow, he reminds us that Emily Dickinson was right: “Nature, like us, is sometimes caught / Without her diadem.”

Please follow Jan on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

May 1, 2015

After ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’ Frances Mayes Goes Home — Southern Reading

Filed under: Book Reviews,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:07 pm
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The first in a series of occasional reviews of books about the American South 

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. By Frances Mayes. Broadway, 352 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Frances Mayes grew up in the one-mile-square town of Fitzgerald, Georgia, where one woman kept a coffin in her living room and another was a kleptomaniac “whose husband was billed quietly” for items she pilfered. This memoir describes her childhood and her move back to the South after the Italian sojourn that inspired her Under the Tuscan Sun. Mayes deals bluntly with the pre-civil-rights era injustices she observed, such as a tradition at her university that Chi Omegas “didn’t date the Jewish boys.” And if her writing about the food, weather and landscape of the region is overheated — when the sun rises over the ocean, “the wobbling golden orb hoists out of the water” — it is rich in detail. However stifled she felt as a child, Mayes conveys a deep affection for the aspects of the South that she still loves now that she lives in North Carolina — “the mellow southern winter, the humane pace, and the sweet green beauty of the land.”

(c) 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 20, 2015

‘A Train in Winter’ – French Women Who Resisted the Nazis

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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True stories of women whose anti-Nazi activities led to their deportation to Auschwitz

A Train Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. By Caroline Moorehead. HarperPerennial, 374 pp., $15.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1943, a train arrived at Auschwitz bearing 230 French women who had resisted the Nazi occupation of their country. Most were not Jews, and because of it, the members of the group fared better than other female prisoners. They were not executed on arrival and could eventually write to their families and receive packages.

The women on the train, many of them communists, nonetheless suffered desperately and witnessed savagery at close range. One night Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, a photojournalist who had worked for anti-Nazi publications, heard terrible cries. The next day, she learned “that because the gas chambers had run out of Zyklon B pellets, the smaller children had been thrown directly onto the flames.”

Caroline Moorehead, an English journalist, tells the stories of Vaillant-Couturier and other passengers on the train known as Convoy No. 31000 in a popular history that begins with their Resistance work and follows them through the liberation of France. She aims in part to show how the women’s friendships helped them endure Auschwitz and, later, Ravensbrück and Mauthausen. Some of the women clearly did benefit from reciprocal support, but fewer than 50 of 230 survived the camps, showing that female bonds — however strong — were not enough for most.

With its large cast, A Train in Winter has a splintered focus that makes it at times hard to follow. But its deglamorized portrayal of Resistance work is a fine antidote to Hollywood stereotypes of that movement. This book will enlighten anyone who believes that resisters consisted mainly of handsome young men listening to encoded wireless broadcasts in cozy farmhouses in the French countryside.

Best line: The commandant of Auschwitz lamented in his memoirs that people couldn’t understand that he “had a heart and was not evil,” Moorehead reports.

Worst line: Natasha Lehrer noted in a review in the TLS that the name of the anthropologist Germaine Tillion is “unfortunately misspelled throughout, including in the index, where a cursory glance might suggest that she was related to the politician and resistant Charles Tillon,” who also appears in A Train in Winter.

Published: November 2011 (HarperCollins hardcover), October 2012 (HarperPerennial paperback).

One-Minute Book Reviews publishes reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. Please follow Jan on Twitter @janiceharayda for her tweets on books.

 © 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 22, 2013

‘Toms River’ – Why Did So Many Children Get Cancer in a Jersey Shore Town?

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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A real-life environmental detective story about toxic wastes suspected of causing cancer in children

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Bantam, 538 pp., $28.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, New Jersey was the capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States, and Toms River stood at a crossroads of that dark enterprise. In this stellar environmental detective story, the gifted science writer Dan Fagin tells how a toxic disaster befell and — after decades of political and legal wrangling — ended in a Jersey Shore town better known for its Little League World Series champions.

Toms River abounds with the sort of cloak-and-dagger exploits more often found in suspense novels: midnight dumping, anonymous tips, criminal sabotage, indifferent government officials, and corrupt executives – in this case, at Ciba-Geigy, once a major air and water polluter in the area. But the emotional heart of the book lies in its account of the unusual number of children in town who developed cancer, especially leukemia.

Many of the victims’ parents suspected that the problem lay in the toxic wastes dumped by or emitted from the smokestacks of Ciba and other polluters, and they spent years trying to prove it. Their efforts had impressive results — a government investigation, a cleanup of dump sites, and more rigorous testing of the town water. But the parents received no financial settlement from polluters until their legal team expanded to include Jan Schlichtmann, the brash lawyer whose gladiatorial fight for leukemia victims in Woburn, Mass., inspired A Civil Action. In 2001 he helped to negotiate an estimated $35 million payout to the Toms River families, a sum Fagin calls “unquestionably the largest in a residential cancer cluster case, dwarfing the $8 million Woburn settlement of 1986.”

Schlichtmann does not appear until page 349 of the story, and when he does, he has mellowed enough to urge the victims’ relatives to stay out of court. And his late and subdued arrival — and Fagin’s penchant digressing into epidemiological history — make Toms River a slower-paced and less splashy book than A Civil Action. But it is perhaps a more valuable one. Its focus on science and citizen action, not on a go-for-broke lawyer, shows more clearly than Jonathan Harr’s bestseller how difficult it is — even for prosecutors and environmental agencies armed with subpoena power and sophisticated databases — to determine what caused a cancer cluster.

Fagin notes that “Toms River had an extraordinary amount of toxic pollution and a discernible cluster of childhood cancer, and the two seemed to line up, roughly, in what looked like a cause-and-effect relationship.” But the case that the victims’ families hoped to make against polluters was impossible to prove:

“Even with all the pollution and cancer in Toms River, the apparent association could never be confirmed definitively because of the unanswerable questions about long ago exposures and also because of the enigmatic nature of cancer, which struck so unpredictably and had so many possible causes.”

Toms River has cleaner water than it did 30 years ago and no leukemia cluster, but whether other towns could marshall the resources that enabled it to make those gains is doubtful. The main legacy of Toms River, Fagin notes, “has been to solidify government opposition to conducting any more Toms River–style investigations.”

Best line: In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency posted its first official list of the country’s most dangerous toxic waste dumps, known as “Superfund” sites because a “superfund” would pay to clean them up if the government couldn’t force the dumpers to do it: “Sixty-five sites on the original Superfund list were in the undisputed capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States: New Jersey, which had 24 more sites than its closest rival, Michigan. With nine dumps on the list, Ocean County alone had more Superfund sites than 36 states.” Two of the Ocean County sites were in Toms River.

Worst line: Ciba-Geigy blundered when it faced unflattering news stories about all the treated wastewater it was pumping through a pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean a half-mile offshore from Ortley Beach: “The company responded with all the finesse and humility of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution.” That might be true, but the image is tired.

Furthermore: Learn more about Toms River on Dan Fagin’s website. Wonder how close you live to a hazardous waste dump? Click on your state on this Environmental Protection Agency map of Superfund sites.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2013

Coming Soon – A Real-Life Environmental Detective Story

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:42 pm
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Suppose that an unusually large number of children in your town developed cancers that seemed to result from an environmental hazard such as air or water pollution. What would it take to prove it? A group of parents in Toms River, NJ, found out when their children were diagnosed with cancers that they believed to have been caused by toxic wastes dumped by the town’s largest employer. Dan Fagin describes their fight for justice in Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Bantam, 2013), an environmental detective story that involves midnight dumping, criminal sabotage, and other subterfuge. A review of the book will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. 

October 22, 2013

Ex-Bronco Nate Jackson’s Football Memoir ‘Slow Getting Up’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 pm
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An iconoclast recalls the physical and mental bruises he sustained in the NFL

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile. By Nate Jackson. Harper, 243 pp., $26.99.

By Janice Harayda

Nate Jackson recalls his injury-prone years in the NFL in a book that proves that a professional football player can use “contextualize” and “neophytic” in a sentence. He has not written his league’s answer to Andre Agassi’s Open, perhaps the best sports memoir of the past decade.

But unlike better-known players such as Brett Favre, Jackson has a sense of humor — by turns droll, self-mocking and sarcastic — that doesn’t spare his teams, the 49ers and the Broncos. He refers to every stadium as [Insert Corporate Logo Here] Field and notes that the NFL has required its drug-testers to watch players urinate, not just collect cups,  ever since a member of one of its rosters was caught at an airport with a prosthetic penis called the Whizzinator.

As entertaining as some of this is, you wonder why Jackson felt the need to explain things such as that a lot of masturbation goes on in the hotel rooms of football players traveling without their wives or girlfriends. Did he think no one would have suspected it?

Best line: No. 1:  “So much of offensive football is lying with your body, getting the defender to think you are going somewhere you aren’t. Tell a story with your movements: a bloody lie!” No. 2:  Jackson says he lost some of his idealism when the Broncos replaced quarterback Jake Plummer, whose success had made him believe “there was room for an iconoclast in the cloistered institution of big football,” with the rookie Jay Cutler: “But the good/bad thing about football is that it moves too quickly for your conscientious objections to keep pace. It pulls you along by sheer force.”

Worst line: No. 1: “But I’m not a pregame self-gratifier.” (Accompanied by a report on players who are.) No. 2: “If the wedge comes free to me and the R2, and all the other guys get blocked, then the R2 and I must eat up the wedge and spill the returner outside into the arms of the R1.”

About the author: Nate Jackson spent more than six seasons in the NFL, mostly as a tight end. He played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2002 and for the Denver Broncos from 2003–2008. Ann Killon interviewed him about Slow Getting Up for a San Francisco Chronicle article in which he discusses his brief use of Human Growth Hormone at the end of his career.

Published: September 2013

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic and journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow @janiceharayda on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 22, 2013

Sherri Fink’s ‘Five Days at Memorial’ – Fatal Choices at a Hospital Hit by Katrina

Filed under: Current Events,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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“What is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing?”

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. By Sherri Fink. Crown, 558 pp., $27.

By Janice Harayda

If you’d like to read a horror story, you could pick up Stephen King’s just-published sequel to The Shining. Or you could brace yourself for this nonfiction account of the disasters that unfolded after Hurricane Katrina trapped more than 200 patients at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans.

The scale of the calamities took on an alarming legal dimension when, a year after the 2005 storm, the Louisiana attorney general ordered the arrests of a doctor and two nurses suspected of having given fatal overdoses of morphine and a sedative to critically ill patients stranded at Memorial by floodwaters. The case was complicated by an ad hoc evacuation plan that the hospital staff had developed as the crisis intensified: The healthiest patients, doctors decided, would leave first when rescuers arrived. Two groups would go last: the sickest patients and those who had filled out Do Not Resuscitate orders — even if, as was true of 81-year-old Vera LeBlanc, a patient had filled out the form more than a decade earlier. The evacuation plan specified that patients who could walk would be among the first to board the Coast Guard helicopters and privately hired airboats that were arriving intermittently. And it meant that in the five days before the last person left Memorial, doctors and nurses had to make life-or-death decisions they might have avoided if they had received a timely rescue or if the hospital had followed the widely accepted medical protocol of giving the highest priority to the sickest patients and those whose lives depended on machines.

Faced with these realities, a grand jury declined to indict the arrested doctor and the New Orleans district attorney decided not to prosecute the nurses. But the situation raised lingering ethical issues that the physician-turned-journalist Sherri Fink explored in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article for the New York Times and the nonprofit website ProPublica. As Fink summarized them in the Times: “Which patients should get a share of limited resources, and who decides? What does it mean to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and does that end justify all means? Where is the line between appropriate comfort care and mercy killing? How, if at all, should doctors and nurses be held accountable for their actions in the most desperate of circumstances, especially when their government fails them?”

Fink explores those questions further in a book that is as important as it is repetitive and disorganized. Laura Miller has noted on Salon that parts of Five Days at Memorial read like a “notebook dump.” If that is perhaps too harsh, it suggests the lack of a cohesive point of view that might have unified a book for which the author says she drew on more than 500 interviews. Fink tells her story from multiple perspectives — among them, those of doctors, nurses, and relatives of patients who died while waiting to be evacuated. As she moves from the hospital that provides the setting the first half of the book to the legal proceedings that inform the second, she repeats facts and shifts gears imperfectly. Fink says five times that a patient named Emmett Everett weighed 380 pounds. And a long dramatis personae does not always prevent confusion about who is speaking or why someone appears in the book.

Amid the welter of viewpoints, Fink withholds her own except in an epilogue that deals with what doctors in New Orleans and elsewhere have learned — or not learned — about disaster relief.  Does she believe staff members at the Memorial committed murder or euthanasia? She offers only clues. In one of them, she gives the last line of her story to a grand juror who says she was convinced — and believed her fellow jurors were, too – that “a crime had occurred” at Memorial.

That is a remarkably tepid conclusion for a book about 45 deaths, more than a few of them suspicious. Unlike physician-authors such as Atul Gawande and Perri Klass, who merge elegantly their literary and medical identities, Fink seems to be groping for a voice. In the absence of one, she relies on the honorable journalistic tradition of looking for sources who express her views. But that approach works best when reporters structure their books in a way that leads to the clear and inevitable — if implicit – conclusion that is missing from this one. Few people can be better-informed than Fink on some of the urgent questions raised by Five Days at Memorial. As valuable as her book is, it might have been all the more so had she risked offering a few of the answers that she is uniquely qualified to give.

Best line: Fink notes that Charity Hospital in New Orleans had nearly twice as many patients as Memorial and faced similar challenges, including lost power and a lack of working plumbing, elevators, telephones and computers. But fewer than 10 people died at Charity while 45 did at Memorial. Charity did better, in part, because the staff continued to provide services like physical therapy and encouraged workers to maintain shifts and a regular sleep schedule: “This signaled that the situation was under some degree of control and kept panic to a minimum. There was an active effort to stem rumors. ‘You can only say it if you’ve seen it,’ staff were told.
“Perhaps most important, Charity’s leaders avoided categorizing a group of patients as too ill to rescue. The sickest were taken out first instead of last.”

Worst line: “Like many of the hospital staff around him, his professional association with what was now Memorial Medical Center” stretched back decades.

Published: September 2013

Read Fink’s Pulitzer Prize-winning article on how doctors at Memorial cared for patients during and after Katrina.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book editor of The Plain Dealer. You can follow her (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

August 29, 2013

Evan Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star’: Custer at Little Bighorn

Filed under: American History,Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:10 pm

Did an undiagnosed case of OCD contribute to a military disaster?

Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn. By Evan S. Connell. North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 448 pp., $13.29, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Americans didn’t always find it easy to cast George Armstrong Custer as an imperialist lackey who attacked Indians justly angered by broken treaties. Evan Connell notes in this rambling history of the Battle of Little Bighorn that much of the public viewed him as a homegrown Siegfried, “a warrior of matchless strength and purity,” for decades after a band of Sioux and Cheyenne and others killed all of his men in perhaps as little as 20 or 30 minutes on June 25, 1876.

Son of the Morning Star lends plausibility to both views of one of the most controversial figures in American military history. Connell’s overconfident Custer led a reckless Seventh Cavalry charge against a vastly larger number of warriors who saw gold miners streaming onto land promised to them by the U.S. government. But his book describes enough of the Indian atrocities that preceded the attack, including the murder and scalping of children, to show why any 19th-century American might have seen the young lieutenant colonel as a noble martyr.

Connell tells Custer’s story with a slack hand absent from Mrs. Bridge, the taut masterpiece that made his reputation. A poem that Walt Whitman wrote right after the Battle of Little Bighorn, he says, is “not very good”: “If he had waited, as poets are supposed to do, recollecting in tranquility, he might have done better. Then again, it could have been worse.” Son of the Morning Star has a fair amount of such blather. But Connell has a novelist’s eye for suggestive detail that adds layers of interest to the accounts of the battle typically found in history books. He writes that the impulsive Custer had obsessions that included “washing his hands again and again” while serving in the Army during the Civil War. And although his book doesn’t raise it directly, the question lingers: Did America’s Charge of the Light Brigade result in part from what would today be called an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder?

Best line: No. 1: “Just as each tribe marked its arrows in a distinctive way, so each had a particular style of scalping: diamond-shaped, triangular, square, oval. Sgt. [John] Ryan observed in his memoirs that when the scalped body of a trooper was found the Indian scouts knew immediately which tribe was responsible.” No. 2: “Abdominal wounds usually were fatal, whether or not the blade [of an arrow] could be withdrawn. This fact being known to Indians, they frequently aimed at a soldier’s bellybutton, and it is said that experienced frontiersmen sometimes would wrap a blanket around their middle in hopes of stopping the point or at least diminishing the impact.”

Worst line: No. 1: “In addition to written orders, he seems to have been told verbally to dump the stove.” No. 2: The lines about Whitman quoted in the review above.

Published: 1997

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

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