I am of the opinion that everyone has a story to tell – that doesn’t mean everyone should tell it, though. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir should have made for a compelling read, but ended up winning “Book I Enjoyed Reading the Least” at our final book club meeting. (Although in my mind, it was neck and neck with Death Comes to Pemberley for the position.)
When I teach memoir to students in my writing class, we talk a lot about the ‘why’? Why is this the story you are telling? What have you taken away from this experience? If you want to take a reader on the journey through your life, there has to be a pretty compelling reason.
Some memoirs are more successful than others. In order for a memoir to work – for me at least – it has to combine three elements: story, character and writing. So, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s best selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love both worked and didn’t work for me. The writing was terrific; I loved the idea of her journey, but I didn’t like her very much. Let’s compare Eat, Pray, Love to another best-selling memoir, Julie & Julia. I loved the story, the writing and Julie herself.
Then there’s Wild. At twenty-six Cheryl Strayed is still mourning the death of her mother, who died when she was 22, the dissolution of her marriage, which ended soon after, and recovering from her addiction to a guy named Joe and their shared heroin habit. Good times. Impulsively, she decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. That’s 4268 km of therapy. With very little preparation (or at least it seemed that way to me – she bought a book and some ill-fitting hiking books and suddenly she was walking), Strayed embarks on a journey which she hopes will clear her head or mend her broken heart.
When the book opens, Cheryl has lost a boot over the edge of a mountain:
My boot was gone. Actually gone.
I clutched its mate to my chest like a baby, though of course it was futile. What is one boot without the other boot. It is nothing. It is useless, an orphan forevermore, and I could take no mercy on it. It was a big lug of a thing, of genuine heft, a brown leather Raichle boot with a red lace and metal fasts. I lifted it high and threw it with all my might and watched it fall into the lush trees and out of my life. …
I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one.
To keep walking.
I felt like Strayed’s journey had all sorts of potential. I mean, her life was a total mess and here was her opportunity to work out her issues and reset her course. But the more I read the less I cared. I can’t quite say what it was about her, but others in book club had the same sort of feeling: we just didn’t like Strayed.
Wild felt like a missed opportunity to me. Regardless of whether your relationship is awesome or toxic, the death of a parent is a game-changer. Strayed’s brother and sister and her beloved step-father, Eddie, sort of scatter to the wind and it made me wonder why. When my parents died – first my mom and then a couple years later, my dad – my three younger brothers and I circled the wagons and became even closer. We understood that it was just us now and ‘us’ was important. Strayed’s brother doesn’t even visit his mother when she is dying in the hospital.
So, is Strayed ‘cured’ after her long walk. I doubt it. While on the surace it would seem that her journey to the Bridge of the Gods (and oh, those heavy-handed metaphors!) delivers her back to herself, I’m not sold.