During the first part of “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, I felt as if a woman I didn’t know was sobbing in my arms — repetition, rocking, and rhythmic gasping for breath. An uncomfortable feeling. Not to mention the topic in the first chapters. (I’ve had my own battle with cancer.) I read quickly. The point is, however, that I felt her stark feeling laid bare in poetic and compelling narrative, and she took me to the trailhead right along with her. That’s an outstanding accomplishment for a writer.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to become judgmental about Cheryl Strayed. Many online “reviews” are littered with skepticism and derision while the reviewer extols virtuous thoughts about what a “normal” person, presumably like themselves, might do in her situation.
Some of those reviewers scoffing about her “stupidity” for being so unprepared didn’t seem to have the same problem with similar situations in other hiking or adventure memoirs. I can sort of understand this. There were moments when I thought she must be a “bitch.” But quickly realized the connotations and the unfairness. The “had she been a guy” argument. Would a guy seeking sex in the literal and emotional wilderness receive as much condemnation?
What I do know is that I found nothing “unrealistic” about her hike. I’ve climbed mountains from Alaska to Colombia and am an experienced wilderness hiker. All of what she writes rings true. Does she manipulate scenes to suit literary needs. Of course. That’s what writers do. (I did the same thing in my nonfiction story “The Wells Creek Route,” nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Does my mention of it here make me “self-absorbed?”)
The writing is brilliant, and she had the courage to take us along describing things she likely knew would receive derisive comments. Bad reviews come with the territory. There have always been critics. What’s relatively new, I suppose, is that schmucks like me can “publish” them. Some two and three star reviews are honest appraisals of a mismatch between writer and reader. Others seem bitter and misguided. Makes me wish I hadn’t read them before I wrote this. What should have been a celebration, on my part, of an outstanding book, turned out to sound like something from the comment section of a partisan political “rag.”