Wild – Cheryl Strayed

We’ve somehow flipped into November. Surprises me every time.

And, as time marches on, my stack of books I’ve read that I’ve yet to blagh about has grown. It’s not the blogs themselves, mind you, but the header photos that delay me. Fortunately, for this episode, one of the cats was kind enough to model for me.

This blagh’s read was Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I was… interested in this book. I saw the movie in theaters and was fine with it. I love Reese Witherspoon as a general rule, and love women doing distinctly unexpected things. This was both. Yet the movie had little impact on me.

Then, a few months ago, I stumbled across a letter Strayed had written to… someone. It might have been part of her Dear Sugar series, possibly something else. I was struck by her voice, by her advice, by how accessible and encouraging she was without being all sunshine, cupcakes, and Hang-In-There cat posters.

That letter moved Wild from the basic bitch Eat Pray Love category into an unknown category that spiked my curiosity. (Side note: I have not read EPL in its entirety, so my comment is not a comment on the book or the quality of its writing or the earnestness of its author, but of the pumpkin spice latte, Ugg boot-toting fanbase that sprang up around it when the Julia Roberts movie was released almost a decade ago.)

I loved Wild. The quality and strength of Strayed’s voice was unexpected. The interwoven narrative, the breadcrumb backstory, was perfectly placed. Structurally, Wild is a work of careful genius. By not front-loading the book with her history, she teaches the reader about herself, gets the reader to bond with her, then continues to unfold herself on each page, slowly redeeming past sins with humility, acceptance, and frankness.

It made me re-examine how I had structured my book (especially the first chapter) and how I went about disseminating information to the reader (very haphazardly). There’s a lot more work to be done than I initially thought, but Strayed provided an excellent map to guide me through the process.

Other notes:

I remember when the movie came out, one of my friends also saw it. I remember him complaining to me about the story, about Strayed. He said her hiking reputation was inauthentic, that she coasted on being female, that she never could have made the hike truly alone. Too many people helped her along the way, he said, and stopped her from failing when she definitely would have.

It’s funny. I can’t remember who said that to me. I can’t remember where we were, what brought it up, any other parts of the conversation. But I remember his complaint, and I remember it bothering me, the thought that just because someone needed help and/or education, that they didn’t “earn” the end result. That Strayed’s hike was, essentially, not worth what others’ hikes might be worth, because of the help she received.

It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I think it’s mostly because I worry about the sexism that I believe is rampant in travel narratives. If Strayed had been male and received the same amount of help/guidance from other male travelers, it would’ve turned into a buddy story or a budding man/achieving maleness narrative. It would have been the passing of knowledge from one man to the next, an inheritance of testosterone, a returning to manly roots, etc. etc.

A woman? A princess being saved, a helpless lady being rescued, a beauty using the tools available to her to achieve her quest–but never deserving her end result.

I wonder, if/when my novel is published, what people will complain about. What will cause them to cry “inauthentic” or “undeserving!” I wonder if it even matters.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.