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 and 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.