Wild is a memoir and coming of age story about Cheryl Strayed’s extreme reconciliation with her life so far at age 26. She decides to take a walk on the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to come to grips with her mother’s premature death. Largely about being alone in nature and facing the all-consuming physical challenge, Wild nudges the reader’s understanding of Strayed’s demons as she faces them in small tender moments.
The backstory drives Strayed, and, as a reader, I was interested and sympathetic. However the trek and it’s ridiculous difficultly was more fascinating; it raises some intriguing questions. Why does Strayed carry Monster, her nickname for the backpack that she struggles to even lift off the ground? Since it outweighs packs carried by much larger, more experienced men, I wondered what’s in there that she could give up. Those books that she reads and burns at night? Her gear naively purchased that seems prone to failure? And why are those boots so horrible that she plucks dead toenails off one by one? She didn’t prepare very well, no practice hikes for example, and only a minimal amount of cash. (She often gets down to a handful of change which she spends on treats like Snapple or potato chips on scheduled stops at small post-office stores that intersect the trail.) Late in the story Strayed admits she might not have attempted the trail if she’d been more prepared, and she only seems to complete it through plodding and pluck and the occasional kindness of strangers. Yet we understand that her grit goes much deeper and is fed by her early experiences of poverty, abandonment, and loss.
Cheryl Strayed’s reconciliation with her grief blooms on her mother’s fiftieth birthday in the form of anger at the unconventional aspects of her mother’s parenting. Slowly, alone in the high mountains, living in a flimsy tent, Strayed understands it was just that unconventional childhood that is the basis of her strength and that her mother’s death, coupled with intensity of nature, has granted her a unique way of looking at the world.
Bankson is the third main character and much of the book is his first person narration. Immediately he and Nell become friends, sharing ideas about the work for which Nell, at least, has a strong and passionate approach, citing the euphoria of the title, a state of mind—the illusion that one has come to understand the culture—that kicks in somewhere around the second month of living with a tribe.
Bankson takes the couple up-river to study the Tam and reluctantly leaves them there. Desperately lonely, with his own childhood demons to sort out, Bankson visits as often as he deems seemly, fighting his keen attraction to Nell.
While the details of the river environment and the primitive cultures, their practices, rituals, and superstitions serve as a fascinating background, it is really the three anthropologists, their personalities and interactions that fuel the story. Nell, through the eyes of Bankson, is irresistible: delicate, vulnerable, brave, generous, and passionate. She is in love with her subjects and that love is returned full force until a series of tragedies befall the triangle of English speakers and the people they hope to understand.
Nell and Bankson and Fen can’t help but bring a white man’s arrogance to a complex primitive culture. Despite their best efforts at being absorbed and accepted, the group is ultimately responsible for Fen’s obsession, and must live with the repercussions.
The two books, Wild and Euphoria, differ in the way only a memoir and novel can. Yet the similarities—exotic wild background as setting for character development—are at first glance enticingly parallel. But the interplay and dominance of these elements—setting and story—are really in mirror opposite. In Euphoria, the characters and plot are primary while the setting serves as an exotic background to a classic tragedy. In Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s relationship with herself is inextricably linked to her relationship with the trail and its challenge. Without that, we would not care as deeply about her struggles and losses, for we see her trek as a result of, and a desperate attempt at expunging her difficult childhood and her grief over her mother’s death.
Further, the ending of Cheryl Stayed’s book reports successes on all fronts—she completes the trail, goes deep with self-examination and change, and purges her demons. The coda—a sketch of her mature self, happily married, a mother, a successful author portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film version of the book—is the kind of happy we like to see in an epiphanic memoir.
Euphoria, too, should be a movie, with its Cold Mountain ending. But what we feel for those characters is more complex, and in a way, more real than what we feel at the end of the memoir. Novelizing fosters the more imaginative, more dramatic version of the truth.
I recommend both books in part because I love the two settings as they stretch our understanding of the world. By stepping away from a normal existence into an extraordinary world that few can experience outside of the pages of a book, readers of both Wild and Euphoria will be richly rewarded.