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July 22, 2015

Book Review: Wild

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Audience: adults

Pages: 311

(Some spoilers! Read at your own risk, but you probably know the general plot thanks to the Reese Witherspoon film adaption.)

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.

That’s just one of the gems found inside Cheryl Strayed’s wildly (puns?) popular memoir and account of her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. As a hiker with a lot of enthusiasm but little experience, I appreciated a lot of qualities about Strayed’s memoir:

Strayed writes raw. There are no sugary phrases or cute quotes, aside from the #realtalk she lays out up above and at other points. She writes with an honesty that is astonishing, as well as a self-possession that is critical to the story’s success. I like that she calls herself out on her own bullshit, both about what she’s done in her past that she isn’t proud of, and the silly thoughts or urges she has while on the trail (to hook up with the hot hiker, or not to hook up with the hot hiker?).

In this way, it’s easy to tag along on Strayed’s story. Her retelling of her marred past and difficult childhood is interspersed between comical and perceptive narration of her hike. That Strayed is a phenomenal nature writer also helps the story; descriptions are rich and colorful. She captures the feeling of being deep inside the bowels of nature, so deep one feels they may honestly be the only person on the planet.

Those two qualities, her nature writing skills and sharp personal commentary, make this a deep read. I read this book at a time when I needed it and I could understand the message behind it: in a way, it’s close to an anonymous quote I heard a long time ago, but never understood until recently:

You are not a bad person for the ways you tried to kill your sadness.

Strayed is not always an easy character to like. She breaks off her marriage on what may seem like vague grounds, but it’s clear she isn’t in love, and to be fair, not all relationships end in a black-and-white area. Often our most intense moments occur in the gray areas in between clear-cut feelings. Strayed tackles that with grace. She’s also struggled with heroin, other drugs, and a serious use of sex as a coping mechanism.

But she emerges not only as likable, but as lovable, and rooting for her becomes so easy its effortless. I love this book, partly because I read it at the right time in my life, partly because I love her sheer badass-ery, and partly because I know Strayed is a damn good writer who told her story (arguably the only story we can every truly tell, our own) as well as she possibly could. She didn’t just tell it; she exorcised it. And I respect that immensely.

Reading this story was certainly a factor (but not a tipping point) to me connecting more to the side of myself that values nature. I have never had a bad hike. I’ve had bad moments, I’ve been scared, and I’ve been lost. But I have never regretted going out into nature.

Strayed’s story is one I urge every young woman (and man!) to read. It speaks multiple truths, but the most important is this: the person you were yesterday doesn’t have to be the person you are today. Learn from it, grow from it, and in the wise words of Maya Angelou, another woman who grew from a storied past into a stellar future:

Now that I know better, I do better.

 

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