Book review:Wild by Cheryl Strayed


Wild by Cheryl Strayed (first published in 2012 by Knopf)

At 26 Cheryl Strayed has a lot of baggage. Not only is she lugging half her weight for 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, she's carrying years of emotional and psychological trappings.

After the untimely death of a mother whom she clearly doted on, Strayed decides on a whim to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. No surprise as her entire life is conducted in an irrational, irresponsible, impulsive and unprepared manner. 

This behaviour isn't in reaction to her mother's death – it's who she is. Changing her name to a word meaning "to move away aimlessly from a group or from the right course or place" is ironically apt. 

Wild is described as "A deeply honest memoir about a mother and daughter, solitude and courage, and regaining footing one step at a time". And yes, it does tell a story of a woman's struggle and overcoming various obstacles in her life. 

As we take each pained step with her across the desert, over mountains and through snow, it becomes clear that she has plenty of demons to battle. Monster, as she names her backpack, becomes more than just the supply of food and equipment weighing her down. 

How she survived this grueling trail with little preparation is still a mystery to me. Sometimes she seems proud of her ignorance about hiking in general and even boastful about her extra-marital affairs, one which temporarily turns her into a heroin user.  

Initially I felt sympathy for her strenuous journey, her troubled emotional state and I was impressed by her supposed bravery. However, after a hundred pages of commenting on the appearance of the men she meets, their potential interest in her and telling her how wonderful she is, sympathy evaporated as quickly as water on a hike through the desert. 

I wanted to stand on the side-line and cheer her on, but how do you remain sympathetic towards someone who repeatedly makes the same mistakes and doesn't learn a thing from the lessons life is hurling at her? 

Time after time she befriends a fellow male traveler, runs out of money or goes hungry because she enjoyed a meal she can't afford on the day her supply package arrives, only to be left with a few cents in her pocket for the rest of the trip. 

This is what the novel's story line consists of – repeated day after day with some scenery changes and the odd rattlesnake, fox, deer or llama thrown in. She meets plenty of potential interesting people along the way, not only men, but we learn little about them because she's too busy observing how they react to her. 

If you are expecting a journey of the spirit, hoping that the protagonist finds herself or experiences some bewildering revelation, you won't find it here. It certainly shows some strength of character, persistence and determination. 

But the trail is the only thing she overcomes – and possibly the compulsion to submit to male attention (sometimes).

Wild tries to fit into the "Lose yourself to find yourself" mould of memoirs, a genre Elizabeth Gilbert popularised with Eat, Pray, Love. However, Gilbert brought adventure, culture and an interesting narrative to the table. Cheryl Strayed only dishes up a can of cold baked beans, washed down with an occasional Snapple. 

Am I too critical? Definitely. Many readers will enjoy her journey "from lost to found". After all, Wild was featured by Oprah's book club, is an international bestseller and a movie was based on Strayed's writings. 

Wild is an enjoyable, easy read which offers escapism and a change of scenery. And who knows, maybe it will inspire you to be a bit braver. Just remember to pack enough money, Band-Aids and water.

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