I almost didn’t finish reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012), a pick from Oprah’s book club 2.0. The book is a memoir of Strayed’s experiences hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California to Oregon, by herself during her twenties after a messy divorce and the death of her mother. I wanted to read it and I wanted to like it, but when I got to page 57 and she described having an abortion as if she’d just brushed her teeth or driven to the grocery store, my stomach turned. She wrote, “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink” (57).
Let me be clear about my feelings. I do not believe that abortion should be banned. As a feminist, I believe that women have the right to choose, especially in circumstances such as rape or incest. I guess my problem with Strayed’s description was that she seemed to take it lightly. She seemed not to care, and she’d only gotten pregnant because she’d been sleeping around on her husband and doing heroin. Her reasons for getting an abortion bothered me, and I know that’s judgmental, but I was bugged all the same. Perhaps, though, that baby was better off not coming to someone who was so admittedly messed up. Of course, there’s always adoption, and having recently seen adoption bless two of my friends’ lives, I am all for it.
I must admit that I am glad I soldiered on and kept reading, for Strayed does write a tiny little bit more about that abortion toward the end. What finally softened my heart toward her was this: “It only made me beg the universe to give me another chance. To let me become who I needed to before I became a mother: a woman whose life was profoundly different than my mother’s had been” (272). To this, she refers to her mother’s own unwed pregnancy and subsequent marriage to an abusive man. I admire Strayed’s desire to be a better person than her mother had been and to be a better mother from the get go. I’m not sure what I think about her belief in the universe allowing her to do so, for didn’t she make the choice to have unprotected sex and the choice to get an abortion? I have little patience for people who do not take responsibility for their actions, and I maintain that the world would be a better place if everybody did so and stopped playing the blame game.
Okay, I’m stepping off of my soap box now to get to what I thought of the memoir as a whole. I didn’t really like it. I got over my complicated feelings about her abortion and continued reading. But I never really found myself moved by or drawn to her experiences. She focuses on the death of her mother and her divorce, which prompted her to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in the first place. She complains a lot about her childhood, and I’m all for reading about complicated and unhappy childhoods since I had one (read about it here and here), but her account came across as self-indulgent, needy, and overly dramatic. I mean, the woman admits to having put her mother’s “burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole” (269). Yuck. I know, I know. I’m being judgmental again. I guess I just didn’t like her tone. As to her numerous sexual escapades, she shared them in shocking detail. TMI. In the end, I was happy to see her feel unburdened of grief for her mother, but I’m not sure that as a reader I learned anything new or became any more enlightened for having read her story.
Yet, the story she tells is interesting, and she has some valid ideas about fear and strength. She says, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me” (51). I admire her for this way of thinking. I know that I let fear conquer certain parts of my life, and that fear is mostly because I’m a petite woman, but her words have inspired me to tell a different story to myself.
What became most fascinating to me about her narrative is the books she read along the way. She mailed herself boxes of supplies along the trail, and each box contained a book. She took to burning the pages of the books as she read, because she could not afford the extra weight in her unwieldy backpack, dubbed “Monster.” That backpack does provide for much comic relief. But as I read, I began keeping track of the books she was reading. To my delight and surprise (and annoyance at myself for taking too many notes), there’s a complete list of her books at the back of Wild. I did not have to write any of them down. Here they are.
The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California by Jeffrey P. Schaffer, Thomas Winnett, Ben Schifrins, and Ruby Jenkins
Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Handbook by June Fleming
The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
The Novel by James Michener
A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Dubliners by James Joyce
Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 2: Oregon and Washington by Jeffrey P. Schaffer and Andy Selters
The Best American Essays 1991, editors Robert Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates (LINK)
The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût
I am not ever planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, so the books on that subject do not appeal to me. But I do find myself wanting to read some of the others. The Novel by James Michener, although Strayed admits its status is something lower than fine literature, sounded interesting. I am always a fan of The Best American Essays series, and I have never read Margaret Drabble’s work. I’ve already read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I have also read Flannery O’Connor’s complete stories, and I felt that Strayed’s choice to bring her on the trip was a smart one. Those stories can entertain and enlighten anybody, anywhere, even if they’ve been read before.
The Ten Thousand Things sounded deep and emotional. I’m not into poetry, but I have enjoyed Adrienne Rich’s work in the past, especially the poem about the fish that Strayed constantly refers to. I am currently reading Rich’s Of Woman Born, an exploration of motherhood and feminism, for my women’s studies class, so reading Rich’s poetry seems like the next step. I just might try Strayed’s whole collection, along with Joyce, Coetzee, and Nabokov. I have read other work by Joyce and Coetzee, so I know those books are likely fabulous. As to Nabokov, I want to and need to read Lolita, because it’s on the BBC book list that I’m working my way through, but the subject matter intimidates and frightens me. Perhaps I just need to get it over with.
Is there anything on the list that interests you? What have you already read from it?