Note: This is the full and complete version of the review. The version that ran in the TNIE is a slightly shorter version.
Wild and Unfettered Wisdom Beyond Limiting Cliches
By Sheila Kumar. Published: 20th October 2015
Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed is not a fresh- off-the- press book. Wild released in 2012 and has been successfully made into a movie; the author has now branched out as a podcasting star with a `Dear Sugar` show online and of course, dealing with the multiple book deals that were expected after her smashing debut with the book under review.
I have come late to it. It is just that, as a reviewer, I would be doing the
book a great injustice by not writing about it. Because it is that kind of a
Just once in a while, there appears a book that immediately strikes a chord with both genders. There was Elizabeth Gilbert's frank memoir Eat Pray Love, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In (Women, Work, and the Will to Lead) or going back further in time, Kamala Das’ My Story. Eventually these bestsellers transcend the feminine narrative about issues that women face and become all about a story that belongs to everyone.
And that is the kind of a story that Cheryl Strayed tells. At 26, a few years after losing her mother to cancer, in the wake of her siblings and stepfather drifting away from the family circle, on the cusp of a divorce from a man she still loves, Strayed takes off to walk 1,100 miles on the arduous Pacific Crest Trail in western USA. Battling a backpack that seems to have developed a mind of its own apart from being super-heavy (like carrying a boulder, says the author), loneliness (she goes weeks without glimpsing another person on the trail), the ever present sadness, wild animals, extreme elements, Strayed comes through, after 94 relentlessly demanding days on the trail.
She gets lost, she is shoeless for an excruciating period, she gets good and scared when she comes faceto- face with a longhorn bull, rattlesnakes, a huge elk, a golden bear and hears a pack of howling coyotes disconcertingly close by. Since she has arranged for $20 to be sent to her with fresh clothes via strategic way stations along the trail, she is frequently penniless, at one point down to two pennies, and has to fend off the hunger that assails those without money when she comes across food stalls. She loses her 'sacred' T-shirt, her backpack continually rubs her hipbone raw and she is plagued by foot trouble (toenails falling off, skin swelling and pulping).
She has to fight off the occasional bout of lust, she is covered by small frogs one night, but nowhere on the trail does Strayed seem to give in to real panic. Then there are the magical moments as when a little boy on the trail sings beautifully to her; a deer comes close, then casually moves away; a red fox locks eyes with her for timeless moments, or when she is healed by a lake that is so beautiful, it defies description. Thus, exultation rides side by side with despair.
This is an amateur hiker trekking through treacherous snowfields, crawling on her hands and feet on slushy ice at times. She is an avid reader, so she carries reading material with her; only, she rips and burns the pages after she has finished reading so as to lighten her load.Even
as the reader wonders if her less- than- pleasant moments on the trail will
include a run-in with a nasty human character, Strayed does meet a man with
dangerous intentions but is saved in the nick of time.
Just how meaningful a read this book is creeps up on the reader stealthily; it has you by the head and by the heart before you know it. There is no escape: you just have to give in to it. The reader is by Strayed's side every step of her way, cheering her on lustily. It’s a vicarious experience for those not as intrepid as Strayed, but a rewarding one.
Wild is all about Strayed battling her demons out in the open, the trek becoming a sort of a crucible. It is an emotionally wrenching trek for her and for us the readers. The book will strike a chord with non- trekkers, too. The symbolism behind all the odds Strayed faces just cannot be missed; there are life lessons in the book and they are clearly marked, too. This is a journey we are all on, how we survive the obstacles defines who we are.
Strayed is a free spirit in every sense of the world, grabbing life, men, sex, dope, booze, experiences with both hands and never regretting any moment of it. She writes directly, without any flourishes, and frequently leavens her account with dollops of humour. At one stage she says she looked like a cross between Farrah Fawcett in her glory days and Gunga Din at his worst. Her direct writing fairly `demolishes` (a favourite word of the author's) the reader. Which makes Wild a very interactive book.
The best stories are those where the writer breaches the emotional distance between herself/ himself and the reader. Wild does just that. The fact that a movie was made from the book, with Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl Strayed, only adds lustre to its cult halo.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin.