Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Into the Wild

Author John Krakauer first reported about the death of Christopher Johnson McCandleless in an article he wrote for the outdoorsman magazine Outside in 1993.  In 1996, he published the book Into the Wild with a more complete picture of McCandleless's travels from 1990 through his death in 1992.  Chris McCandleless was a college graduate who took to the road after his graduation from Emory University in search of a lifestyle in which he could live off the land, in the fashion of Thoreau or Tolstoy.  To cut ties with his affluent upbringing, he even went so far as to change his name that he gave to others to "Alexander Supertramp." 

From the very beginning, you know McCandleless died on his adventure.  There are lots of interviews with folks he met along the way---from a guy who gave him a job in his granary to a "rubber tramp" couple (slang for homeless people who own a car) to an elderly man who wanted to adopt him as his grandson.  Amazingly, he did manage to live off the land in Alaska several months before he succumbed to starvation that experts theorize was brought on by ingesting seeds infested with a poisonous mold.  In the book, McCandleless comes across as a nice guy with grandiose ideals that unfortunately do not include a lot of planning and preparation behind them.  The author, as an avid outdoorsman and mountain climber himself,  is clearly sympathetic to McCandleless and relates to his quest.

In the end, I just felt bad for all the people he unceremoniously left behind.  While his parents were clearly imperfect and didn't share Chris's same life philosophy, I couldn't help feeling that he was so unkind and ungrateful for how hard his parents had worked to provide for him over the years.  It was claimed over and over again in the book about how much he loved his sister Carine, but he didn't even stoop to contact her during his time on the road.  Maybe I would have felt different reading this book if I hadn't been a parent.  Everyone likes a bit of adventure, right?  I just felt, even with the author's bend in McCandleless's favor in telling his story, that he came off as self absorbed, arrogant, and uncaring towards his family in the book.  It was especially hard to see how everyone he met adored him, while he treated those he grew up with with contempt.  I would be absolutely heartbroken permanently if my child grew up to behave that way towards me.

And yet, McCandleless is viewed as a sort of modern day hero by some because he followed his dream of living off the land.  Because he died on his trip, he's now immortalized and people make pilgrimages to the bus he died in.  Sean Penn directed a movie based on this book.  Somehow that just seems wrong to me.  Should we exalt people who follow their dreams regardless of the outcome?  I don't think so.

1 comment:

HDNelson said...

This is an extremely astute review. I remember feeling exactly the same way when I read it. McCandless's "it's all about me" vibe didn't quite sit well with me either, and the praise of his "individuality" completes leaves out those who are left hanging with questions that will never be answered.

It's pretty selfish, and I only hope my children don't pull that kind of stunt.