Monday, May 20, 2013

Wild : Cheryl Strayed

By Cheryl Strayed

I was late to the Dear Sugar columns, really only hearing of them after she revealed herself as Cheryl Strayed, but after reading a column, I ended up going back and reading all of them.  In the columns, she had an uncanny knack for identifying hidden, underlying issues that the reader asked about and for elucidating and illuminating these issues and emotions, many times, in quite astonishingly beautiful ways.

Many of the characteristcs that made her columns so great are evident in this memoir.  I think it's easy for authors of memoirs to shoe-horn their past into widely accepted cultural stories, in a way deceiving themselves into romanticized versions of the past and of their flaws.  Strayed has an emotional courage to her, delving and needling into really uncomfortable and painful emotions.
The last couple of days of her life, my mother was not so much high as down under. She was on a morphine drip by then, a clear bag of liquid flowing slowly down a tube that was taped to her wrist. When she woke, she'd say, "Oh, oh." Or she'd let a sad gulp of air. She'd look at me, and there would be a flash of love. Other times she'd roll back into sleep as if I were not there. Sometimes when my mother woke she did not know where she was. She demanded an enchilada and then some apple-sauce. She believed that all the animals she'd ever loved were in the room with her-and there had been a lot. She'd say, "That horse darn near stepped on me," and look around for it accusingly, or her hands would move to stroke an invisible cat that lay at her hip. During this time I wanted my mother to say to me that I had been the best daughter in the world. I did not want to want this, but I did, inexplicably, as if I had a great fever that could be cooled only by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, "Have I been the best daughter in the world?"
   She say yes, I had, of course.
   But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother's mind and for them to be delivered, fresh, to me.
   I was ravenous for love.
While much of the memoir focuses on Strayed's experience hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, she sets up the tone of the book with the loss of her mother.  And there is this subtle transition from the emotional impact of passages like the above one to nitty gritty details and stories that make outdoor expeditions so interesting, reflective and unpredictable.  By the end of the novel, the reader has become so immersed in the storyline arcs of hiking, that you realize that Strayed has gotten past some of the emotional turbulence she was initially struggling with.  But that movement was not a cathartic one that you see in generic movies, but rather subtle, gradual day-after-day one.

A very book, one that I suspect would be as good on a second read.

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