Friday, 12 April 2013

Heroin Heroine......Cheryl Strayed's Wild-reviewed

In the world of outdoor writing,every so often a book comes along which transcends the genre and become a successful crossover work. Joe Simpson's Touching the Void was one such work. A book which might have been expected to remain within the climbing constituency,was suddenly being read by a mainstream audience with the film rights being sought after by such luminaries as Tom Cruise. Now US writer, Cheryl Strayed's Wild has repeated the formula. If Touching the Void's success reached the skies then Wild has touched the stratosphere.

Hugely successful in the States, the tale of a young emotionally broken woman hiking 1100 miles along the Western Pacific Crest Trail has been championed by such media giants as Ophra Winfrey who made the work her book of the week on her  nationally aired TV show. It has seen the film  rights bought by Hollywood superstar Reese Witherspoon and even has our own Nick Hornby-no stranger to film versions of books himself- praising it to the heavens in the blurb. If we were to apply the Guardianista Pseuds Corner cultural criteria to Wild- which suggests that any artist or work which achieves popular commercial appeal must by definition be rubbish-then this book would have them heaving up their organic muesli. However, for those who have an objective approach to culture, 'Wild-A Journey from lost to found' has to be considered a genuine classic work by a brilliantly gifted writer.

This is not some plodding diary of a backpacker, but  a searingly honest account of a human being who found her salvation on what became a brutal physical and emotional odyssey.
Cheryl Strayed was born into what might be described as a White Trash social background. A violent and abusive father who terrorized her beloved mother. His leaving led to an impoverished life on the fringes of society, where the author's family-an airy-fairy but devoted mother and her three children-moved from one cheap apartment to the next before Eddie arrived. Eddie,The stepfather who became the father her real Dad had never been and who with the proceeds of an  accident compensation settlement, buys the family a ruined homestead within 40 acres of scrubby bush in Minnesota. A rural setting where Cheryl and her family lived a life of hippy self sufficiency and subsistence work.

The catalyst for Cheryl's life changing trip in her twenties sprang from the sudden death of the mother she worshiped. Like a prairie fire, an aggressive cancer tore through her mother's body in weeks and she was dead at just 45. The huge sense of loss made even more painful by the almost immediate disintegration of her family. Within weeks of her mother's death, Cheryl's marriage began to collapse, triggered not least by her predilection for casual sexual encounters. Eventually she found herself washed up with a junkie boyfriend, spending her days shooting up and lost in a heroin haze.  During this period,while casually standing in a till queue,her hand alighted on a guidebook to the PCT. The rest as they say....

What marks out Wild as an exceptional book is not least the quality of the writing.  The author forgoes any temptation to indulge in turgid prose and just tells it how it is. Clearly and succinctly but absolutely vivid and powerful in its intensity and descriptive power. It's a magic formula which brings the book alive to the reader. There are moments when you are emotionally taken by the scruff of the neck and shaken like a rag doll. Animal lovers-particularly horse lovers- should perhaps skip pages 159 to 163. I was left pretty broken up after reading this passage.It was like being punched in the solar plexus.

Similarly, the encounter with redneck hunters who had stepped straight out of Deliverance in a wilderness glade was pretty intense. That's not to say Wild is just an emotional roller coaster which is purely focused on hardship and suffering. Cheryl's journey 'from lost to found' is brim full of positivity..the many warm and kind people she meets en-route, the acts of kindness and the moments of magic she experiences in the wild.

So many of these backpacking stories set in the wilderness tend to be as much a grinding plod for the reader as it was for the writer. Usually involving the same old predictable props.The excruciatingly heavy rucsac, food shortages, storms, intense heat, intense cold, blinding rain,disintegrating boots and of course... blisters. Then there is the usual cast of characters met en route. Weirdos,hermits,angels,regular guys and gals, and psychos. Not that the author doesn't use most if not all of the above elements. What makes Wild transcend the usual fare though, is the way the author interlaces her past life into the story. Referencing events and people who trespass into the here and now. Wild is not just a linear journey of 1100 rain lashed,sun baked miles, it is a tapestry of experience, laid out on the ground for all too see. One minute approaching a snowy canyon,the next in a back yard in Minnesota with a feral father glaring through the storm blind at his terrified children. It's this structure and the quality of the writing which could so easily have been mangled and misdirected in less gifted hands .

For those readers who prefer their outdoor writing more wholesome and traditional, then perhaps Wild is not for you. The author feffs and jeffs, has casual sex, smokes joints and has impure thoughts aplenty in the course of her journey. In fact, nothing out of the norm for any normal healthy woman in her mid twenties. But be warned, Alfred Wainwright or Hamish Brown it aint!

Overall, a wonderful life affirming book which should be considered a future classic. Let's hope Reese Witherspoon doesn't make a dog's dinner of the movie.

John Appleby:2013