Last week I blazed my way through this summer’s “it” book, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Even before Oprah made Wild the inaugural pick of her interactive online Book Club 2.0, friends and reviewers were lauding it as a must-read – This year’s Eat, Pray, Love! – so I was excited when my local book club (1.0) chose it as our October read.
In Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her 1100 mile solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, a national trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. Strayed uses her trek as a lens through which to explore her emotional disintegration and reawakening following the death of her mother and the collapse of her marriage. Without any long-distance hiking experience or really any clue about what such a endeavor entails, Strayed decides to hike the PCT as a way of both turning back the clock and moving ahead. She writes:
I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had made my life ridiculous.
What really elevated Wild for me was Cheryl Strayed’s ability to get and keep me on her side, even as she made decision after decision that confused, frustrated, and downright irritated me. Sure, Strayed and I are both American women who like to read and write and have blue eyes and a fondness for the poetry of Adrienne Rich, but I don’t think our instincts could be any more different. Committed to her project in spirit if not in physical preparation, she sets out on the trail with boots that are a size too small and an overstuffed backpack that’s ten sizes too big. She continues to make risky choices throughout her trip: traveling alone, not carrying enough water, hitchhiking, spending her few dollars too quickly. But I really liked her, despite the ways she tweaked my Type A nature. Her voice is fresh and open and her style is confessional: no one realizes Cheryl’s tendency for screwing up more than Cheryl. She lets us see her, warts and all, and she makes us believe she is a person worth knowing.
Reading Wild, I was also struck once again by a question that often obsesses me as I read memoirs: does a memoirist need a big, dramatic experience in order to have a story worth telling? Strayed’s life has drama in spades: she was raised poor by her mother in rural Minnesota after her mom split from Strayed’s abusive father; her mother died young after a brief battle with lung cancer; Cheryl married at 19 and then split with her husband after dalliances with several men (not to mention heroin). And then, of course, there’s her experience hiking the trail itself – filled with bloody toes, coyotes, and encounters with strangers of mysterious intent. Strayed is a terrific writer – I suspect she could make my grocery list sound interesting – but still I wonder: would I have turned the pages as quickly if her life had been more like mine?
But then I think of some of my favorite memoirs – Dani Shapiro’s Devotion, Katrina Kenison’s The Gift of an Ordinary Day, Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance – and I’m reminded of the magic a gifted writer can weave into the simplest of stories. And that, if I ever want to write a memoir, I’d better work on my writing since my life experiences alone probably won’t sell my story.
As a reader, do you prefer big, splashy stories or small, quiet ones? Have you read Wild? If you did, what did you think?