Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tri-Delts and Homework, A Review of Wild by Cheryl Stryed

In my senior year of college, I took an Honors course called Autobiography in America, run by a woman whose first order of business was to banish all Tri-Delts from class, due to their house's recent outbreak of the Swine Flu. I later learned that she was a (probably) lesbian Catholic who had come from Yale and was hesitant to take this job in Oklahoma because she wasn't confident she'd find anyone down here to date. I guess she must have found someone because on that first day of class she begged the nine of us sitting around the rectangular tables not to drop the class because she couldn't afford not to have this hour filled. She bribed us into staying by abolishing all papers and told us we could end the semester with a book report of our choice. I hadn't had any plans of dropping the course since it was one of the last I needed to graduate, but this lesson in negotiation by silence was priceless, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting out of what surely would have been torturous paper-writing for my hardest class thus far.

That's all in an effort to explain how this class happened to become my favorite and most memorable course in my college career. Without the dreaded papers looming over my head, I was free to read each book and present my opinions and thoughts without fearing for my GPA. Therefore, I read, week after week after week, the thirteen autobiographies that opened my eyes to a new genre of literature--or really, to a new way of getting to know a person. Reading the words that each author chose to share with me helped me decipher what from their life was most important to them versus what their Wikipedia article might say. If only all classes came without homework and Tri-Delts!

And so it's from this background that I present my review of this year's book-to-movie memoir: Wild by Cheryl Strayed:

I began this book on the flight home from my spring vacation. Despite my lack of sleep the night before, I was unable to nap. The flight attendants didn't force me to power down my electronic devices, so I pulled up my iPad and shuffled through the stack of books I'd downloaded for this trip. Sadly, I had breezed through a fun chick flick novel on the previous flights, so I was now left with the heartier novels to choose from.

I started reading Wild because it was about a twenty-six-year-old woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Being twenty-six myself and identifying as a somewhat outdoorsy type, I thought maybe this woman and I were alike.

But after the first chapter I realized, no. We were not alike at all.

I hadn't cheated on my husband.
I hadn't slept with random strangers.
I hadn't spent long summer nights shooting heroin.
And I hadn't considered a three-month hiking trip after my mother didn't die.

But I did have two more hours of my flight, so I kept reading.

Cheryl, the protagonist, is young, married, and finishing up college when her mother dies of cancer. It is because she both loves and hates her mother that her sudden death breaks Cheryl's heart. She sets out on the trail four years later after divorcing her husband, meeting various other hikers, rattlesnakes, and a lot of physical pain.

I liked the book. In short, because the writing was good and the plot was obvious. I knew she wouldn't die in the end, I knew she'd reach some sort of peaceful mindset, and I knew she'd end up happily ever after. I like to know where my books are going.

What I did not like about the book was her. In a strange, hypocritical way, I was angry at her the whole time for not being as like me as I had initially hoped she'd be. I was also mad that she didn't break in her boots, her pack, or her gear. WHO DOES THAT? There is also a traumatic scene about a horse which left me weeping--yes weeping--in the kitchen while waiting for my dinner to cook. And I don't even really like horses. I hugged my dog for five straight minutes after that. I think he was mad at her, too. It was too hot in the house for hugging.

Her writing style is quite nice though. It's that contemplative, self-reflective, I-can-come-up-with-pretty-phrases-like,

"Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves
"Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was." 

But it was also funny--she calls out REI and Snapple and other brand names without worrying about the labels dating her text--and reacts to animals exactly how I would ("BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!"--it was a fox.). She also flutters from being slightly paranoid about serial killers to being "not afraid." I, too, am more worried about psycho killers than bears when I'm in the woods. 

So, I guess we kinda are alike.

She followed the hero's journey fairly well. Although without sidekicks she's left with fewer characters to develop. We come to understand that her new best friend becomes Monster, the overweight pack she carries, and we hear more about Monster than we do about any other human she comes into contact with. 

As a memoir, it serves it's purpose well. Though she includes flashbacks and memories and even a taste of the future, she sticks to one, significant time period to relive. She doesn't tell too much, doesn't drag out the physical injuries she suffers, men she meets, or food she eats. Yet I was acutely aware of those parts throughout each chapter, whether they were there or not. Just like the blisters on her feet, I knew that despite her mishaps and good luck, she was always thinking about the emotional baggage she'd come to shed.

Autobiographies and memoirs, though they are technically very different, both teach us about people from their own perspectives. What I learned from Cheryl was that Cheryl needed the vastness and isolation of the wilderness to reboot her life. And she knew that going into her journey. So often, we hear about the hero's life lessons being learned as a happy side effect of their journey. Not often does a heroine plow through a journey on purpose. Most of the time, if a character's goal is one thing, her result is another. I was both surprised and pleased that Cheryl accomplished what she'd hoped. Her insistence on finding peace didn't negate her ability to let the trail find it for her. I guess the trail is going to do it's job whether you ask it to or not. And Cheryl asked. And Cheryl received.

If you're looking for a thoughtful and well-written memoir, take a peek through Wild. If nothing else, you'll hear about an epic trail that you may just add to your bucket list. 

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