Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

idgiepug’s CBR#4 Review #16: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

I feel as though I’m always behind the crowd when it comes to popular books.  I usually don’t pay much attention to what’s “hot” right now, and I don’t buy a lot of books (I prefer the library), so when I get around to reading a best-seller, I’m a bit behind.  In the case of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, I’m way behind.  I knew the story, and I wasn’t really all that interested in either the book or the movie when they were first released, but I found myself perusing the novel selections available at my school and picked this one up.  I knew the basics of the story, and Krakauer doesn’t make any secret about the inevitable end of the main character, so I was surprised at how engaging the story was.  It was interesting and easy to read, but I’m still having trouble sorting out my feelings about the main character and about Krakauer’s narration.

The book tells the story of Chris McCandless, a privileged white kid from the East coast who was smart, athletic, and successful academically.  A voracious reader, McCandless began questioning the, according to him, bourgeois lives of his parents and devoted himself to living the simpler life of a vagabond.  He began his post-college odyssey in his beloved car, but abandoned the car out west due to mechanical problems.  From there, he set off on foot and hitch-hiked his way around the country.  At one point, he gained possession of a small boat and paddled his way into Mexico and eventually to the ocean.  Despite its difficulties, this journey seemed to encourage McCandless to attempt an even bolder venture.  His search eventually led him to Alaska where, a few months after he hiked his way into the wilderness, McCandless’ body was found by hikers and hunters.  The young man had starved to death, leaving behind a small collection of books with his notes inside, a make-shift journal, and a few rolls of film.  Through interviewing various people who knew McCandless both before he left home and during his wanderings, and through a thorough sifting of the evidence McCandless left behind, Krakauer reconstructs his last few years and attempts to explain what led to McCandless’ untimely demise.  Along the way, Krakauer recounts his own youthful mountain climbing adventures, one of which nearly led to his own death in Alaska.

Krakauer is clearly sympathetic with McCandless and sees him as a young man who could have succeeded in “finding himself” in the wilderness if not for a few small mistakes and unfortunate twists of fate.  He addresses the people who dismiss McCandless as a dumb kid who got in over his head and encourages us to see him as a young man who had a lot in common with other young men who engage in equally risky yet more socially acceptable behaviors, such as binge drinking or experimentation with drugs.  McCandless, in Krakauer’s view, may even be an admirable figure for his belief in living simply and being in touch with nature.  I found it hard to buy in completely to Krakauer’s assessment, especially when he talks about the family McCandless left behind.  McCandless’ mother Billie puts it best when she says that he may have been a hero had he survived, but the price he paid (and that his family paid) was just too high.  During his odyssey, McCandless cut off all contact with his parents and adopted a pseudonym so that they couldn’t find him even with the hired help of a private detective.  I can’t imagine how difficult life must have been for his parents during the years when they had no idea where their son was or whether he was alive or dead.  At the same time, though I’m not a risk-taker like McCandless or Krakauer, I do find something appealing about attempting to live simply in nature.  I’ve always loved the woods, and I read many of the same books that inspired McCandless, so I can sympathize with his desire to get away and his discontent with the world the way it is.  I just can’t forgive him, though, for the pain he caused his family.  I appreciate Krakauer’s more nuanced depiction of McCandless, but in the end I question his assessment of McCandless’ life.  I was especially disappointed to find that Krakauer, in the same year that he published Into the Wild, was part of an Everest expedition that ended in tragedy.  Krakauer survived, but several in his party did not.  I can’t understand how someone who witnessed the McCandless family’s suffering first-hand would then attempt an equally risky venture that could very easily have left his own family in that situation.  I know that we all take risks every day, but there are regular risks and exceptional risks, and I have a hard time sympathizing with people who take those very exceptional risks.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and will perhaps use it in an upcoming class.  It will be interesting to see what kids who are closer to McCandless’ age feel about his life and death and to see if they are as ambivalent as I am.  Krakauer’s own life might make for an interesting research and discussion topic as well, so there’s a lot to do with this book.  I recommend it, but I warn you, especially if you are a parent, that you may find yourself getting angry with a dead kid even as you sympathize with some of his desires.

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