Book review: Into the Wild
After graduating from Emory University in 1990, Chris McCandless donated all his savings to Oxfam, drove his car west and then ditched it, and – with only a light pack – went to live off grid for a while. Loaded with ideals about the need for a greater level of honesty in society, and to escape some of the often complex and unneeded controls levied on people, he roamed across vast areas of immense natural beauty – hitchhiking and canoeing in Arizona, California, and Mexico, and weaving a northerly path, via a stint working at a wheat farm in South Dakota, to his ultimate goal: living off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. A life of purpose. A world away from our noisy and complicated society – in which an aspiring writer has to start a blog and update it weekly to try to get their name out – but also, as it can feel, one rife with dishonesty, fear, and avarice. McCandless’s body was found in an abandoned bus near the Stampede Trail in Alaskan backcountry in August 1992, after he’d been living in and around it for almost three months.
Into the Wild is an enduring text touching on issues relevant today. Not only does it retell McCandless’s travels, his worldviews, and some of the encounters he had with people along the way, but it pokes around at some of the deepest questions over life, death, and what it means to be human. The film version of this book (also fantastic, released 2007, and starring Emile Hirsch) completely changed my life. And I do not exaggerate an inch with that statement. Maybe it’s because I watched it when I was twenty, had just dropped out of university, was impressionable and full of ideals; but I identified so much with McCandless that it’s one of the main reasons I picked up my rucksack and headed to the American West myself back in 2011. Many others have been affected in a similar way. It is an affecting story. But where the film leans slightly towards the nobility in following his beliefs which led to the twenty-four-year-old’s death in the wild, the book finely balances this with some of the hypocrisies and ignorance exhibited by Chris in his disregard for the feelings of the people close to him.
The effects of McCandless’s life and death on the people he met and befriended throughout his travels are laid bare. The effects on his parents, whom he renounced ties with before packing his rucksack and hitting the road, are left until later sections of the book, and convey their heartbroken confusion as to why their son left. He came from a wealthy family (though his parents earned all of this, having been brought up in poverty), but rejected many of the privileges this upbringing offered him; seeing them as things other people would benefit more from than him (such as the new car his parents offered as a graduation gift). I didn’t cry during this book, having seen the film so many times and knowing roughly what would happen, but I was choking up when Krakauer reveals that McCandless’s mother, while visiting the abandoned bus about a year after her son’s death in it, left a box of food and emergency first aid supplies in case anyone found themselves in a similar situation to her son. She left a message accompanying the food. In it, she urged whoever stumbled upon the box to call their parents as soon as possible. It's even more tragic that, a number of weeks before he died, McCandless was ready to take himself back into society after one of his most profound realisations whilst in the wild: happiness is only real when shared. But the wild itself, in the form of a river flowing high with glacial meltwater, trapped him and kept him away from the people he craved again to see.
Krakauer’s writing is beautifully eloquent. The crafting of composition and organising the chronology of McCandless’s journey is a masterclass. He so vividly captures the majesty and changing scenery of the vast American West that you will immediately want to step out of your front door. It truly is an inspiring read. If you ever feel or have felt trapped within certain systems imposed upon you – a capitalistic forced urge for materialism, the need to conform – then read pretty much any section of this book. Having read Thoreau’s Walden and some of John Muir (both frequently alluded to in the book), I honestly believe Into the Wild is as important a book in the modern age. Because it’s so accessible. It’s impactful. It’s heart-breaking. And, despite knowing McCandless’s fate from an early stage, the book is still powerfully dramatic.
Many of us have the urge to remove ourselves from society for a short time, a long time, by an extreme method such as living off the land, or by small or incremental modes such as deleting social media accounts. With climate change hot on the current agenda – even though we knew about it back then – it’s interesting and encouraging to read this story of a young man trying to reconnect with nature, as well as some of the side-stories included which tell of more people partaking in similar experiments or adventures, such as Gene Rosellini, otherwise known as the Mayor of Hippie Cove, who tried to live completely off the land – tools and all – like he was in the Stone Age. It raises questions about our society today. Could our perceived progression actually be a type of regression? Is economic and geographical freedom (for some) worth completely severing our ties with nature for? Into the Wild continues to ask us to consider.