Not so wild about Wild

I was recently invited to join a book club and the book already chosen was a memoir – Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I don’t read a lot of memoirs as I tend to hold them to the rules of both history and fiction at the same time, which never ends well. History needs to hold true to facts as they are known without embellishment. (I will withhold from my rant about the picking and choosing of facts in historical tomes.) Fiction, like all good storytelling, has a skeleton that creates an arc for the reader to follow and allows for embellishment. Holding a single book to both standards is difficult.

Ultimately, Wild was a captivating read. Strayed’s style was engaging and kept me turning the page. Sometimes that’s all I want out of a book. But by the end of Wild I felt like there were actually two books in one – a meditation on grief and a travelogue. Either of which would have been beautiful – the early section about her mother had me calling mine to say I love you because I had to and the description of the trail was fantastic – but the combination fell short.

Strayed combines the grief she experienced after losing her mother during college and her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The implication is that her life was spiraling out of control and she wanted to use this hike to find herself, find what comes after grief, find something. I say ‘implication’ purposefully. All the dots are there for her grief and her trek but some connections are missing.
The book is described as a journey of self-discovery but by the end of the book I have no idea what Strayed found. Once she reaches the end of the trail, within the two pages that end the book, Strayed references what she didn’t know would happen in her life – a marriage, children, bringing the children to this spot to talk about the hike. This is the final paragraph.

It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.

I finished this book weeks ago and I’m still not sure how I feel about this ending. Maybe it’s too metaphorical for me. I think she learned by the end of the hike that she was more comfortable with the unknown than before the hike. It could be the last sentence that throws me. Is it from a poem? Is this her original sentence? Do I maybe disagree with the concept that it is wild to let things be? I don’t know. I found myself exhausted trying to connect this last paragraph to all the scattered dots in the rest of the book.

An interesting aspect of the memoir is that Strayed is recounting an even that occurred twenty years prior without a twenty year perspective. There are no observations from her older self. There are no reflections. This is the story as she remembers it at that time. It’s an interesting choice; however, I wonder if that is why I found the overall book lacking something. Could her twenty years of experience and reflection after the hike have provided more depth to the so-called discovery within her journey?

I don’t envy the memoirist. I have tried to write about true events from my life before and they never struck the chord I was going for. It’s a difficult task. I appreciate Strayed’s effort and many sections of the book moved me to tears. That’s saying something.

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