Into the Wild

I had heard so much about it that I assumed I knew what the plot was going to be all about.  I was wrong. And the author was in on the duping.  A story as widely known as this, all of his readers were informed, to more or less, the same degree.  And because the author knew this he had quite a challenge on his hands.  And I had preconceived notions to dismiss.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, is the journalistic telling of the Chris McCandless story.  For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, he was the young man who was found in a bus on the borders of Denali National Park in the early 1990’s.  A lot of talk had gone into how this kid took writers like Thoreau, London, and Tolstoy too seriously.  As if literature was to blame for the unfortunate death of McCandless.

Before reading the book, I had assumed that McCandless was a spoiled, wealthy kid who came from the East Coast and was going to show his family what he was made of by surviving in the western wilds.  While there is some truth to this, my assumption was based on an oversimplification of the circumstances.

Because I felt I knew the story, I was a resistant reader.  I didn’t afford McCandless any sympathy and was skeptical about how the author was going to draw me into the narrative.  What I didn’t take into account was that Krakauer was aware that I and other readers already felt this way.  Instead of taking a didactic, explicit manner of telling the story, he chose to tell it implicitly.  Letting the reader interpret the facts and make connections between the past and the present.  The choice was critical and ultimately it lead me to move beyond my own assumptions Into the Wildand to at least understand what McCandless was attempting to do and what precipitated his ill-fated odyssey.

Krakauer begins the story with the ending we all know.  The body being found in the bus.  He then flashes to the events just leading up to it.  From this point on subsequent chapters reveal two different timelines.  One, the events leading up to the body being found.  The second, and timeline revealing McCandless’s background–his childhood, education, family life, etc.  As complicated as it may seem, Krakauer does an excellent job. I was never lost or confused.  In fact I think this was the best way to relate the background events and the actual events that lead directly to the bus.  We all know the ending so why not start there?

Another stroke of authorial genius comes from Krakauer’s efforts to relate McCandless to a larger movement of voyageurs; individuals who feel the need to escape civilization and prove themselves in nature.  He relates the stories of various people who, like McCandless, had a love hate relationship with society.  On the one hand, they like people.  They aren’t anti-social.  On the other hand, they are able to feel centered and find a purpose once they are away from people and are thriving on their own in nature.  In a moving piece, Krakauer tells his own story of how he made a sojourn to Alaska to prove himself and to prove himself to society.

All told, I think Krakauer moved me from a place of judgment to a more sympathetic state.  I don’t agree with McCandless’s choices, but I understand stand his reasons and I value the journey and ideas he was taking a stand on.  In fact, the more I read the book, the more I realized that my own brother is a McCandless waiting to happen.  It made me stop and think about what would happen if my brother were to take off tomorrow for the western wilds and I never saw him.  Is there some argument left unsettled?  Some feelings left unexpressed?  It makes me stop and think that even though I don’t need to survive on twigs and berries in Alaska, I respect those that do and I need to make sure that I affirm those around who are the nature-as-sanctuary types.  And just maybe, I need to take a short venture into the wild and see what I find in myself, too.

Waterless Mountain

We don’t talk about it much outside of studying a few incidents during the Pioneer years of the 1800’s.  I’m speaking of the atrocities committed against Native Americans.  We hear about the Trail of Tears, Squanto, Sacagawea, maybe Chief Joseph.  But do we ever listen to the stories they have to tell or do we just relegate them to historical indifference?  This question has been bothering me as I’ve been reviewing my curriculum for a U.S. literature course I teach.  I try to be aware of the voices and stories I’m sharing with my students, and which ones are not being given the stage.  As I reviewed what I was teaching I realized that the Native Americans were given some creation myth stories lumped together with the Puritans and Spaniards as part of the “Colliding Cultures” unit.  But then they didn’t really surface until Chief Joseph’s “I will fight no more forever” speech.  But for a people who were here first and who have intervened into the history and development of the U.S., we don’t give their stories and culture a piece of the literary stage.

Recently, such writers as Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday have contributed many quality works and have added Native American voices to the literary choir.  But what about in years past?  Were Native Americans really quite all these years?  Where are their stories?  To answer these questions I turned to the internet and my local library.

The problem I face is that the contemporary Native American writers were writing for an adult audience.  And the domestic violence, rape, politics, and language were too heavy for my young adult readers (i.e. their parents and my administrators).  So I turned to looking for young adult Native American novels. Many were biographies of famous Native Americans like the Code Talkers in WWII or Sacagawea.  These aren’t bad, but I don’t want them to the only stories we tell.  So I happened upon a book written in 1936 called, Waterless Mountain.

The 1930’s are not known for being racially progressive so I was prepared to put the book down at the first sign of prejudice and racism.  I was also prepared for the European-American author to demonstrate her lack of knowledge o the Navajo culture, the Native American nation the book focuses on.  However, I was pleasantly surprised I didn’t have to abandon the book.

Waterless MountainLaura Adams Armer, the author, actually lived among the Navajos for many years and even became accepted enough amongst the local tribe to be given a viewing of a sacred sand painting; something the Navajos have tabooed for non-Navajos.  The point-of-view is from a young Navajo boy and follows him as he comes of age and becomes a man.  Clearly Armer has absorbed enough of the culture to be able to tell the story without stumbling over her white perspective.  The Navajos never come across as savages nor do the white locals come across as saints.  The plot is straight forward and written in poetic language that weaves conflict, mythology, religion and culture into an incredible tale.

I’m actually shocked that this book isn’t part of the mainstream curriculum.  The brief mention of events in the Navajo’s history would be perfect for history teachers to assignment as research projects and the poetic language is an English teacher’s treasure trove.  The writing itself isn’t complex so readers with low comprehension have access while more advanced readers could be challenged to identify the philosophical and historical elements and the subtle conflicts that are mentioned in the novel.

Now that I’ve found a voice to add to the choir I’m compiling, my new challenge is where to teach it.  I want to respect the story that is being told and the culture from which it was born.  So sorry Pioneers.  These Native Americans are not going to be signing next to your tales.  I’m thinking Jack London and Willa Cather would make good neighbors.

American Born Chinese

I’ve been on a big kick to read more graphic novels.  One, because I like the visuals, and two, because I can read them in a day or less.  Let’s be honest, it helps increase my book count.  This particular graphic novel attracted my attention because it’s by the same author as a book I’ve previously reviewed, Saints.  The author, Gene Luen Yang, has done a good job of sharing his parent’s ChinAmerican Born Chineseese culture with a dash of his own U.S. culture as well.

In this work, Yang explores the pitfalls and trials of being a first generation American.  I appreciated that his story is universal.  It’s complex, which allows various backgrounds to find something that they can relate to.  Not only does he have to deal with being from a different ethnicity than the majority of his European-American counterparts, he also has to deal with being different from the Japanese-Americans and fresh-off-the-boat Taiwanese immigrants. He does a good job of making this identity struggle personal.  And the graphic novel medium offers a great way to visualize this identity crisis.  He uses a Chinese religious myth to relate a similar identity story (i.e. the Monkey King) and, while I didn’t get the relationship between the two story-lines, by the end it became super clear to me what was going on.

There’s another conflict going on as well and that is his relationship with the European-American students.  He’s not anti-American but he’s honest about how some of the students feel about him not being white.  They whisper racial epithets to him and declare that he’s not good enough to date white girls.  This creates a complex within himself where he feels he has to become more “white” in order to be accepted by them.  This means looking like them (which translate to getting a Timbelake-circa-2002 perm) and distancing himself from the other Asian students.

Ultimately, he learns that by distancing himself from who he is and focusing on who he idolizes, he’s losing his soul.  He’s forced to ask the age-old questions we all do in Jr. high and high school, is it worth it?  What do we lose when we sacrifice our friends and family in order to achieve what society at-large tells us who we are isn’t good enough.  Whether you’re new to the U.S. or been here since the Mayflower, we’ve all had to face the same dilemmas.


UnbrokenAs part of my Cannonball reading list, I’ve attempted to include more nonfiction works.  Growing up I focused mainly on fiction and only read nonfiction in school for required reading.

What attracted me to this title is the fact that it deals with World War II and the Olympics.  These are two topics I could spend all day with.  The other element that caught my attention was that it’s also by the author of Seabiscuit, a story that I found inspiring.  So basically, there wasn’t a lot about this book that I wasn’t attracted to.  The only knock against it was the length.  In trying to read 52 books in a year, the thicker the book the more trepidation I have that I will be able to finish it and the time it will take to finish it will put me behind.  However, I had to do some traveling so a four-hour flight seemed the perfect time to dive into this tome.  I’m so glad I did.

The story is about Louie Zamperini.  He was a troubled kid from Torrance, California who, through an intervention from his brother, took up running to keep him out of trouble.  Ultimately he becomes this running phenomenon.  This lands him a spot in the 1936 Olympics and an eighth place finish.  While he didn’t medal, his lap time was fast enough to earn a personal meeting with Adolf Hitler.  What shocks me about this episode is that it reminds me of how simple it was for athletes to make it to the Olympics.  You just had to be good enough in your sport to make it to the trials and then, wham!  You’re on the team.  Now it seems like you have to go to the right college, win a ton of competitions, and possibly have a sponsor or two in your back pocket.  “sigh” I guess it was just a simpler time.

Just as he’s preparing for the 1940 Olympics, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and so, too, are his dreams of competing in the Olympics again.  I don’t want to give too much away, but let me just say that even before the climax of the novel, there are several incidents that revealed just how inept the U.S. was when we began the war.  The quality of training and planes that we rushed out of factories was dangerous and deadly.  It was sobering to read that more men died in non-combat flying than in combat.  What a waste of life!

Throughout the incredible trials Zamperini faces, I was inspired by his tenacious spirit.  It was his drive to just simply survive that got him through some terrible, terrible predicaments.  Hillenbrand does an amazing job crafting his story into a narrative and not a list of facts.  This is avoided one of the main complaints I have against nonfiction.   A lot of the time the book is one fact after another and there’s really no story.  But using diaries, interviews, and other resources, Hillenbrand does an outstanding job of telling Zamperini’s story.  The only part I didn’t like was how, in the end, Zamperini seems to be the star of the story and his mates who helped him survive seem to take a back seat.  I don’t know if this is because that’s how life played out or just because it was an authorial intent.  Luckily this doesn’t happen until the end so it doesn’t ruin the main brunt of the narrative.

I walked away from the book realizing that while I may never face or even come close to the events that Zamperini had to overcome, I can adopt the same attitude and fight through the adversities and adversaries that come my way.  I can remind myself that I can face anything with the attitude that I will be unbroken.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Ivan DenisovithI’ve always heard about the gulags in Siberia, but sadly I’ve never read anything about them.  Solzhenitsyn’s name was recommended as a good, contemporary author to check out.

This specific work was the first work featuring gulags to be published in the USSR.  What’s ground breaking, on top of just being published, is that it was published while the camps were being run.  This is quite different from the concentration camp survivors who wrote after the camps were shut down.

Another unique facet of the novel is that it all takes place in a day.  Not in a diary fashion, but an in-depth analysis of the actions and thoughts of the main character, Ivan Denisovitch Shukhov.  He’s a very complex fellow who, by the novel’s end, I didn’t want to part with.

His struggles to survive the harsh realities of the gulag life throws a lot of shadows on everyday decisions you and I wouldn’t spend too much time on.  Is stealing wrong if it means a few more calories to fight off starvation and hypothermia?  Is stealing from your captors ethically permissible?  Why does my outlook on life going to influence whether I live or die?

The harsh simplicity of the camp life actually complicates his life and reveals to readers the grey areas we don’t always consider.  I am thankful for not having been thrown in a camp for trumped-up reasons, for an unlimited sentence, and not reprieve in sight.  At the same time, I’m appreciative of those who have given voice to the millions who did and survived or those that didn’t see the end of their imprisonment.  I am grateful for those brave enough to share their stories.  For now I’m asking myself questions and realizing life isn’t always as black and white as it seems.

Never Fall Down

Never Fall DownIt was second grade.  A girl named Thida joined our class a few weeks after the year started.  She was from Cambodia, and shockingly, I could find Cambodia on a map then.  Our teacher taught us the concept of “refugee” throughout the year.  I didn’t really grasp the concept of “refugee” until years later.

It was in high school.  We were in the second semester five-weeks-until-school’s-over rush to get through U.S. History.  We were discussing the end of the Vietnam war and the fallout in Southeast Asia.  We were introduced to the Khmer Rouge and it’s leader, Pol Pot.

Even later, when I was in college and had joined Netflix, that I saw a documentary called, “The Killing Fields.”  It’s at this point that it hit home the context for why our teacher had taught us about “refugee” and some of the horrors Thida’s family had faced.

So as I prepared to teach a world literature course, I challenged myself to read some works that came outside of the western European, Anglo-Saxon cannon.  Never Fall Down was recommended because it’s from Southeast Asia and it’s nonfiction.  A twofer basically.  The novel is a retelling of a man’s account of coming-of-age under the Khmer Rouge regime.  I was shocked each chapter at the horrors these butchers committed against THEIR OWN PEOPLE.

The author wrote the account using the man, Arn Chorn-Pond’s own words.  This means that the grammar does not follow standard English.  In other words, the book reads as if someone who isn’t completely fluent in English is narrating the story.  This bothered me at first.  But as I got into the flow of the book the language wasn’t a barrier.   In fact, I grew accustomed to it; as if the Arn was sitting there telling me the story himself.  I still don’t know if this isn’t racist.  Is it ok for a white author to write an Asian character’s story using non-standard English?

It’s a moving story overall, but not for the audience that I thought it was intended for.   Young Adults might be uncomfortable by the gruesome murders, morbid torture, rape, and language that are used in the story.  None of which are gratuitous.  Just heavy to handle for immature individuals.  In fact, the raw descriptions made the book that much more powerful because you could tell these things, REALLY happened.

For anyone who’s interested in world literature or the Khmer Rouge in general, this is a good read to edify readers’ understanding of one of the darkest moments in Cambodia’s (and humanity-in-general’s) history.  I’m interested in reading other accounts and histories to find out how and why this happened.  And where was the rest of the world?

One of the most moving moments was when he was separated from his only family, his aunt and five sisters.   His aunt tells him to be like the grass.  To stand tall but to move with the wind.  Go where they send you, do what they tell you and keep quiet.  But most of all, never fall down.  For if you do, you’ll be trampled.  What sobering words for a ten-year old to hear and to ultimately keep at heart in order to survive.