Author: Jon Krakauer
Published: 1996 (this edition 2007)
Publisher: Pan Books (original publisher: Villard Books)
I recently decided to read Into The Wild, the true story of a young American man who disowned his entire family in order to disembark on a dream trip to Alaska, whilst feeling in the mood for a non-fiction read. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book when I first picked it up as, aside from the fact I’m always a little wary of biographies written by someone who didn’t know the subject personally, all I knew of the story it tells is that it ends with its centre-point Chris McCandless dying alone in the Alaskan wilderness. I therefore began reading this book assuming it wasn’t going to be particularly cheery, but also feeling unsure about whether the story it tells would realistically fill a 200 page novel.
However, I am pleased to report Krakauer’s extensive research into McCandless’s life, and determination to give his readers a full and detailed insight into the events leading up to his death, meant I needn’t have been concerned about the seemingly slight story. If anything, I found this book a little too short- I would happily have read about McCandless and his adventures for another several hundred pages. In fact, his story is so enthralling it’s easy to forget he was a real person, and thus to start thinking of him as if he were a character in a work of fiction. I frequently had to remind myself that his death, which would probably be regarded as unrealistic in a work of fiction, is a real-life tragedy.
I feel Into the Wild can probably be regarded as quite a ‘love or hate’ novel, as it is likely readers will either understand why McCandless chose to risk, and ultimately lose, his life in his search for adventure, or dismiss him as an experienced, foolish teen who acted on a whim. Personally, I totally understood McCandless’ want for adventure and his need to remain detached from certain home comforts, and think many teenagers (like myself) can probably identify with his want to ‘see the world’ and live independently. I suspect those who will have the biggest issues with what McCandless did, and this book in general, will be readers who are a little older and thus more rational and sensible. Anyone who has had a child will most probably dislike the way he spent the last two years of his life roaming America, failing to make any kind of contact with his concerned parents during this period. Being quite a family-orientated person I felt this way at first, although I felt more sympathetic towards McCandless when it was later revealed his relationship with his family became strained after he discovered a shocking secret about his Father’s past. It seems McCandless wished to escape some rather painful truths, and one can understand why Alaska seemed the perfect place to do this- it’s big, beautiful and certainly a place one can remain anonymous and undiscovered. Given the chance, it seems likely other young dreamers would be drawn to Alaska- McCandless is simply one of the few individuals lucky and impulsive enough to act on his travel ambitions. Despite this drive and ambition ultimately costing him his life, it can’t be denied that he must have experienced more in his 24 years than some people do in an entire lifetime.
Although I understand the decisions McCandless made, including deliberately losing touch with his family, I am still unsure how I feel about him as a person. Whilst one cannot deny he seems to have been a deep, intelligent young man, one can’t help but feel he got into a fatal situation because he was also somewhat self-assured and over-confident. That being said, as an introvert, I completely understand why he felt it was important he embarked on his journey alone. Regardless of how one feels about him, he is a fascinating character whose death really did come far too soon. One can’t help but wish he just hadn’t embarked on that final excursion to Alaska, even if it was his ultimate goal. Although some of what McCandless apparently preached to friends about, such as solving world hunger or venturing to Africa to help oppose Apartheid, sounds a little pretentious, his heart certainly seems to have been in the right place. Based on the accounts of those who met him whislt he was travelling, he seems to have treated everyone except his own family courteously, and to have made a big impression on many of the people he encountered. At the end of the day, the important thing to rember is that he wouldn’t consider his life to have been ‘wasted’, and would further feel he died doing what he loved, even if it was at a young age.
Finally, it seems wrong to review this book without discussing Krakauer’s amazing achievements in writing it to a greater extent. What began as a small article on McCandless’s death for Outside magazine escalated into Into The Wild simply because he became fascinated with the young man’s story, and felt it had not been adequately or fully told in his single piece. He deserves praise for the considerable lengths he has gone to in his efforts to try and understand what enticed McCandless to Alaska, examining everything from his behaviour in High School to what he did whilst ‘drifting’ aimlessly for the last two years of his life and even comparing his advnetures to an experience from his own youth. He provides a detailed insight into the boy’s psyche, and does seem to come up with an explanation for McCandless’s seemingly irrepressible desire to drift and travel: he was a dreamer. In addition, he was a dreamer with the audacity to actually step out into the big, wide world and fulfill his dreams- audaciously leaving behind an all-American, affluent home. Like him or loathe him, one has to concede McCandless died doing what he loved and managed to tick off his ‘Bucket List’- more than most of us will ever achieve. It is for this reason I respect his desires to travel, and even his desire to do so alone and unprepared. I just wish he had lived to tell his truly fascinating tale first-hand.
Rating: ****.5 (4.5/5)
‘…Nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun’. -Chris McCandless, 1992