Wild by Cheryl Strayed (audio)

wildI took my time getting around to this, because I wasn’t convinced it was really worth my time. But I’m glad I did get around to it.

Then I took my time listening to it, because (as I’ve been saying for several audiobooks now), my listening time is much diminished these days by my lack of commute. In fact, after this one, I’ve decided to lay off audiobooks for a while except for long road trips.

Happily, though, Wild worked just fine with my slow pace and long breaks. The story Cheryl Strayed has to tell is that of her solo hike over much of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), at age 26, following a series of self-destructive behaviors and personal tragedies beginning with her mother’s death and including a divorce and a heroin habit. The chronology jumps around: we first see her late in her hike, when she loses her hiking boots; we then flash back to learn much of her history: her childhood, close relationship with her mother, her mother’s death and her struggles afterward. In part because of its episodic nature, it was okay to move into and out of this story over time. If I’d lost track of her momentary situation, I knew she was hiking the PCT and struggling somewhat; and in just a few seconds, I’d placed her again. Credit for this ease is also due, of course, to the engaging and memorable story she has to tell. Her mother is a sympathetic, interesting and engaging character; her brother, sister, stepfather and ex-husband are less developed but still present as individuals. Cheryl’s own voice is clearly portrayed, and while she frustrated me at times (only natural, I promise), she was ultimately absolutely a compelling, likeable and very real person.

Where Bill Bryon’s A Walk in the Woods was a little exasperating in its silliness, Wild achieves the right blend of humor and real struggle. She is definitely hapless; she has definitely made some serious blunders in getting out there on her own, with a wildly heavy pack, and no preparation. But she persists. She won my respect – I am tempted to say my grudging respect; call it semi-grudging – but better than that, she wins her own.

The writing is expressive, occasionally a little overwrought but only (I believe) as Cheryl was herself overwrought in those moments; it is descriptive and plain. I began to write that the writing is not the achievement of this book, that it is rather Cheryl’s distinctive story that carries it; but that’s not actually true or fair. The structure of this book, the pacing and order in which she reveals herself to us, are intelligently put together. The disordered chronology was carefully considered. The writing is not a straightforward narrative but includes metaphors and images that help bring the story to life. It’s more that the writing fades away and the reader experiences the story starkly: I forget I’m listening to a book and just see the journey unfold before me. This is indeed an accomplishment of writing, but it is an accomplishment of invisible writing rather than the decorative sort employed by Amy Leach, Brian Doyle or Terry Tempest Williams, which I also enjoy and which is easier to see.

I’m sorry for my earlier hesitation: pop sensation it may be, but Wild is also an example of fine writing, well-designed structure, and a hell of a story. I’m glad I studied it. Oh, and Bernadette Dunne’s reading on this audio edition felt like it captured the right voice, for me, of a young Cheryl Strayed. I happily recommend this format as well as this book.

Rating: 7 cold glass bottles of lemonade.

One Response

  1. […] just said I wasn’t going to do any more audiobooks any time soon; but this different format (and a road trip) convinced […]

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