Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

WildThe book cover displays a photo of an REI hiking boot identical to those I wore in my own twenties. The jacket copy promises a “blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike.” And this was the book that inspired Oprah Winfrey to re-launch her immensely popular book club.

When I picked up a copy of “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed of Portland, I was already predisposed to love it. Even the book’s subtitle, “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” conjures the image of a harrowing, yet transformative journey; the kind so emotionally satisfying to experience vicariously through a well written book.

The book is, indeed, extraordinarily well written. The prologue opens with a gripping, visceral moment, six weeks into her adventure, when one of Strayed’s boots falls off the edge of the mountain, irretrievably lost in the valley below – and she chooses to pitch the other after it, leaving herself alone and barefoot, an orphan in the wilderness. I was hooked.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn’t quite measure up. Struggling to recover from her mother’s death, Strayed – a made-up name – tries promiscuity, drug abuse, divorce, and eventually, as she says, “made the arguably unreasonable decision to take a long walk alone on the PCT in order to save myself.”

Although written more than a decade after her trek, the book’s voice is present tense from a mid-twenties perspective.  The structure alternates between the linear trail – California to the Columbia – and introspective flashbacks. While there are beautiful phrases and images throughout, as a whole the book felt both self-indulgent and like something was missing. Why would she go to such extremes? Why was the journey less than transforming? I kept waiting for a deeper insight, but it never came – she kept us in the shallows.

Surprised and disappointed by my reaction, I read a little more about the author and discovered her other current book: “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.” In her anonymously written Internet advice columns, collected in this volume, Strayed speaks with a more mature and compassionate voice.

Reading both books together is like having a secret key to “Wild,” revealing that the long walk alone was just the beginning of her journey. “Wild” may talk of the need to change our lives, that the only way out is through. “Tiny Beautiful Things” incisively, humorously, generously, honestly, and courageously guides readers through the actual self-discovery. I think Dear Sugar would describe “Wild” as one of those “narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices.” I found I much preferred the Cheryl Strayed at forty-something. – Connie Bennett, Library Director

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