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Review: ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed

Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Genre: Memoir
Year: 2012
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: When Cheryl Strayed was 22-years-old, she lost her mother to a remarkably aggressive form of lung cancer; 49 days after the initial diagnosis, Strayed’s mother was gone. In the few years after, Strayed’s life slowly unraveled. She began sleeping around, cheating on her loving and devoted husband. She got pregnant and had an abortion. She fled her home in Minnesota to loaf around in Portland, where she started experimenting with heroin.

Eventually, while at REI to buy a shovel, Strayed came across a guidebook about walking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663 hiking trail that goes from the Mojave Desert in southern California all the way into Canada. Without a clear sense of what it meant, Strayed decided that she would hike the PCT. Wild is the story of that hike and of Strayed’s coming-of-age journey on the trail:

I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be — strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.

Aside being an utterly crazy and remarkable story, the thing that made me tear through Wild in less than 24 hours was the way Strayed wrote about her experiences. Given everything that happened in the years between her mother’s death and her decision to walk the PCT, the memoir could have easily turned melodramatic or self-pitying. But Strayed never goes there. There’s a sense of wisdom to her writing and a sense of distance from this experience that let her write about it in an almost serene and matter-of-fact way, even when the experiences she describes are far from that reality.

Really, her writing throughout is just pitch perfect. Strayed writes with this emotional honesty and clarity that most writers strive to find but often miss:

I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.

I was working too hard to be afraid.

Obviously, there are a lot of section of the book that are not nearly as emotionally put together as that one — many that are just laugh-out-loud funny because they’re so absurd — but you get the idea, I hope. On the whole, I thought Wild was a remarkably honest and wise memoir that I highly, highly recommend.

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  • bermudaonion (Kathy) April 17, 2012, 6:56 am

    I was at the bookstore last night to pick up my books for World Book Night and I almost bought this book. I’m adding it to my list to buy soon. It sounds like my kind of book.

    • Kim April 28, 2012, 2:21 pm

      It’s so good! You should absolutely read it.

  • Erin April 17, 2012, 6:56 am

    Wow, Kim, this sounds fantastic! I’ve been doing most of my reading via audiobook lately, and my library has this one (albeit with lots of holds, unfortunately!), so I’ve put in a request. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim April 28, 2012, 2:21 pm

      This would be great on audio, especially with an excellent narrator. I hope you enjoy it when you get to listen.

  • Care April 17, 2012, 8:15 pm

    Wow. Having just finished Into the Wild and wondering where the women are who might be like Chris McCandless to heedlessly fearlessly go and DO things like this — you post about this book! Might be an interesting companion read to Krakauer’s.

    • Kim April 28, 2012, 2:22 pm

      Ooo, yes, I didn’t think about that comparison. This would be really interesting to read side-by-side with that one, although you know a lot more here about what Cheryl was thinking than you ever know about Chris.

  • Amused April 17, 2012, 8:47 pm

    I just read an article about this woman in Self magazine and found her story fascinating and didn’t connect it to this book. Now I am super intrigued as I love memoirs and this sounds fab!

    • Kim April 28, 2012, 2:23 pm

      I’ve read a few of Strayed’s essays, and I love them. She’s a fascinating writer. I hope you like the book!

  • Heather April 18, 2012, 7:04 am

    Every time this book I reaffirm the desire to read this book. It just sounds fantastic. I have it out from the library, just have to fit it in somehow…. Your review has me chomping at the bit!

    • Kim April 28, 2012, 2:24 pm

      It is fantastic! Even more awesome than I was expecting it to be. Read it!

  • Kailana April 18, 2012, 9:07 am

    This sounds interesting. I am going to add it to my wish list. :)

    • Kim April 28, 2012, 2:24 pm

      Awesome!

  • Lu April 29, 2012, 2:33 pm

    We’re thinking of doing a group read of this at work. I’m really looking forward to reading it!

    • Kim May 2, 2012, 7:43 pm

      That would be awesome. I think there would be a lot of things to talk about with this book.