Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

This upcoming month's book club pick was Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I hesitated to start it as it did not sound appealing at all. However, once I did I was quickly sucked in by the story. Despite being nonfiction and a memoir of her travels along the Pacific Crest Trail, it reflects elements of Joseph Campbell's monomyth, perhaps most commonly known as "the hero's journey." This lends the story a broader appeal and was one of the main reasons why I quickly dug right in despite the initial hesitation.

Read on for the full review.

Overall Impression
Despite being nonfiction, a genre I tend not to read too often, I found myself really liking the book for several reasons. The first, which I already mentioned, was the fact that the narrative style incorporated elements of the hero's journey. Not every story does this and those that do are not automatically good, but this framework helps to give a story a traditional epic feel than can help strengthen an emotional connection. I'll talk more about that later on. Another reason I enjoyed the book was that I lived in California for several years and, while I didn't do the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I did visit the wilderness on occasions and can visualize the setting well. I personally don't hike that much, but I have friends that do and this gave me a greater appreciation for their efforts. Finally, in the end this is a human story about finding yourself amidst the world. It is something that I think a lot of people can relate to even if their own circumstances greatly differ and hiking alone is the last thing they would consider.

The Hero's Journey
Among the lists of books in my reading list there is only one nonfiction book: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In this book, Campbell describes the concept of the monomyth, that is, an archetype of the hero's story or narrative that has been told time and time again. A lot of classical myths, as well as modern novels and movies, have elements of the monomyth in them. In short, this is a way to break down a story in some key stages. In one sentence, it is described as:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Naturally, this particular book has no magical or supernatural forces, but nature itself can be pretty outstanding without any extra help. Strayed herself alludes to the magic of the PCT several times along her journey, after all. Her journey alone into the wilderness is harsh and echoes the trials the hero (or heroine) has to face. I'm not the first person to note this, though. A quick google search shows that plenty of people have linked Cheryl Strayed's story with the hero's journey. This one in particular is rather interesting as it's a short presentation that goes over a few stages of the monomyth and where in Wild these occur. While I think that particular presentation has a few flaws, that's the beauty of the hero's journey: there is no right interpretation for it and it's up to the reader to see how Strayed's story fits into it (or not).

Plot & Character
The story follows Cheryl Strayed herself as she recounts the events leading to, and then her journey on, the PCT. I've grouped both plot and character together as the plot is Strayed's story. She starts her story with her mother's death and events surrounding it. This unhinged her somewhat and she ended up cheating on her husband and doing drugs. She realized that she needed to do something, to find herself again, and so she undertakes an incredible journey: hiking alone the PCT. This is a long trail going from Mexico to Canada along the western mountain range of the United States. You can see a map of it and her journey on the right. Although she has some camping and hiking experience before, nothing really prepared her for the 1,100-mile hike that she undertook.

Setting / World Building
There's nothing magical or supernatural about the setting for this story. The PCT exists and you can hike it yourself if you wanted to. However, most people tend to live in more urban environments and thus may not be too familiar with hiking trails of that sort. Strayed's journey offers a neat perspective into long distance hiking from the point of view of someone who had never done it before. Although she has camped and hiked before, she is nevertheless a newbie for this long distance trip and I'm sure most readers would be too. The book, however, isn't about the trail itself or what you can see in it; it's about her journey. So while it's cool to look at a map and see her progress, in practice you don't even need to know where she is to appreciate the story.

Final Thoughts
I enjoyed this book far more than I expected. I've gone on some hikes before and this makes me want to go on more (short ones, though (... maybe)). However, I know how difficult they can be for me and so I can appreciate the huge difficulty of an inexperienced long-distance hiker taking on the PCT. The book is very easy to connect to, both because she is a beginner and because it deals with the more general topic of finding one's place in the world. This can be far harder than any hike, yet we see how Strayed evolves through her journey to accept herself and become someone who she can be happy to be.

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