The buzz about Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, Wild, couldn’t be ignored. If Oprah Winfrey brought back her Book Club just because of this manuscript, I knew I had to read it. Most everything Oprah recommended I’d read before she announced the selection.
But Wild was a wild card thrown in my direction. The jacket described this book about the rough experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail backpacking by a single woman. Soul-searching adventure, hunh? Losing your mother, messing up your marriage with infidelities, getting hooked on heroin and having nothing left to lose, Cheryl Strayed strapped on a backpack and left Minnesota for good.
When Cheryl divorced, she changed her last name to Strayed. It fit. She had strayed from her marriage. She had strayed from the expectations others had for her and she strayed away from her family once her mother died.
Half-way through her escapades, she receives a package in the mail with a handmade necklace from a friend. Six beads have letters on them spelling out Strayed. Except the Y is in a different font and resembles a V more than a Y. When she wears her necklace, others mistake it for “starved,” and in her real moments of starvation this works like a charm on passersby.
I liked this book as a reader but it did not immediately grab me. I didn’t even like her initially as a narrator. She’d left her husband for no good reason after she couldn’t control her inexplicable marital infidelities. The disclosures about her mother’s death and the hard time she and her siblings had about splitting up furniture and memories are what finally got me. Her personal transformation is what kept me reading. Change.
As an editor, I couldn’t help but feel the scene stolen from a later chapter, about the boot going over the side of the mountain, to be the “hook” for the reader in the intial pages a lame attempt. The first hundred pages seemed so slow and plodding, when that effect needed to be used in the mountains when progress really was slow and plodding.
The manuscript wasn’t really finished when it went to print, in my humble opinion. She could have cut 40 of the first 100 pages with a tighter story structure. It’s a long book. There are some incredible scenes — after her mother dies putting down her horse, the Bigfoot dreams, the reservoir run dry — and great dialogue with interesting secondary characters and subtle subplots. But the beginning of the book takes too long.
I used to snoop on everyone’s bookshelf and nightstand to see how far they had actually read The New Earth by Eckert Tolle before it started gathering dust. Nobody got very far into it, despite all the book buzz Oprah gave it. A lot of people bought it. His ideas still have weight in certain gatherings and that says a lot about the first 20 pages of any book.
The memoir of Cheryl Strayed is good, really good. It’s her story, not literary or editorial acumen that make this a fascinating story; about the Pacific Crest Trail and people she meets along the way, and more importantly, how that journey changed her.
In that she does not stray afar from the genre expectations for memoir. The writing, however, is wild and not tamed by much poetic sensibility. Wild … in that Strayed does a lot of telling and not enough showing. I really didn’t care to hear what she felt unless her actions demonstrated her emotive state. When her writing shows, action speaks louder than interpretative narration.
Cheryl didn’t grow her own food, she ate pre-packaged expensive trail rations that she had sent to outposts along the trail. She didn’t have to raise and slaughter, butcher and cook her own animals.She didn’t entirely unplug or disconnect from the outside world for more than a few days at a time. She grew up in northern Minnesota and was relatively accustomed to “roughing it,” in many ways. But I’m from Minnesota, and spent my summers in Warroad and Williams in the far north and when you want this kind of life changing experience, people go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. She walked instead. She walked a long way. She hitchhiked and ditched big stretches where there was snow. But for all the hype and type about the walk, you’d think less of it would be about the talk. Less telling, more showing.
What “talk” I did enjoy, Cheryl Strayed adeptly wrote in dialogue style culled from the trail register and notes left along the way. The leveling of humanity along a path of nature is captured delightfully in the many characters she encounters. I recommend the book — with all due respect to Oprah — with the caveat that captivating the reader won’t really happen initially. Give it a chance. Worth reading beyond the first 100 pages. Doubtful though we’ll see another book from Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl Betrayed; if she jumps genres.