Cheryl Strayed’s heartfelt memoir chronicles how grief tore her life apart, and how undertaking a journey on her own helped her start to put it back together again. Wild is a touching, sometimes humorous, often tragic look at a broken life attempting to heal itself.
In the wake of tragedy, Cheryl’s life and relationships seem to fall apart. Four years later, she embarks on a personal quest to hike the Pacific Coast Trail… alone. She comes to terms with her past and discovers strength that she never knew she had. This is her account of the things that shattered her life and the journey that helped her put it back together again.
The author seems to be an agnostic, and the only “spirituality” in the book is a secular humanism. She is honest about her views on religion, neither strongly condemning nor finding much value in it.
There is a scene in which the author seems to be threatened with violence, but it never comes to that. And there is a reference to an abortion that is all of one sentence long.
Expect a lot of f-words. There are multiple instances of strong language throughout the book, and while the humor tends to be wry, there are some sexual references.
For a story about a woman hiking alone, there’s quite a lot about sex in the book. Whether it’s in flashback, fantasy, or even an encounter on the trail, there are multiple instances of sexual content — one of them bordering on the explicit.
Other negative/positive themes
Because the book is dealing with the fallout of tragedy and some negative choices that the author has made, there are several negative thematic elements on display. [Spoiler alert] The obvious one is that Cheryl admits to cheating on her husband. Later, she ends up living with a guy who leads her into a phase of drug use. She discovers she is pregnant by him and mentions that she has an abortion. These things aren’t portrayed positively, but rather as tragic ripples forming around the center of her grief. There are also many positive themes dealing with recovering from tragedy and picking up the pieces of a broken life.
At first glance, Wild seems to be a story about a woman “finding herself” by getting in touch with nature on a long, solitary hike, but at its heart it is a book about grief. It’s a personal testimony of how the death of her mom wrecked her, the choices she (and her family members) made in the middle of her grief, the fallout from those choices, and how she set out to put herself back together.
Anyone who has suffered an intense loss will instantly relate to how shattered Cheryl was after her mother’s death. The difference between her and the rest of us is that most people won’t go on an epic hike across hundreds of miles to try to deal with their grief. Cheryl’s story, then, becomes a kind of parable for us to empathize with her journey — without actually donning a pair of undersized boots and going camping for weeks on end.
It’s almost hard to criticize her — and that is what a critique of the book feels like, thanks to how personal the story is — but since she’s elected to put her story on display I might be forgiven for offering my thoughts on it. I like the story. There are a few scenes that seem less than realistic (an example would be the author’s recovery from heroin addiction, which some would find a little too easy, despite the damage it did to her life), but I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt, since none of them are beyond belief.
The parts I like best were the flashbacks. The account of her life falling apart after her mom’s death is intense and relatable. Unlike the Pacific Coast Trail, human grief is a place that is hard to map. It has a center: loss. After that, the trail is winding and confusing. For Cheryl, those trails led her to adultery, divorce, and drug use. Her life broke apart and I watched, understanding.
The story is a redemptive one. The author finds her way back to herself, is remade by her time on the trail. Mildly exciting things happen. She suffers thirst and hunger and weariness. I sympathized when she had to hike all those extra miles in a pair of boots the wrong size, or when she was chased off the campground for being unable to pay for her night there, or when she was threatened by a creepy guy towards the end of her journey. She overcomes a lot, and finds out that she’s capable of more than she thought she was. And she learns to love the broken parts of her. It’s touching, but I’m not sure I found it personally as inspiring as it was meant to be.
This is where your mileage will vary. Depending on how much you can relate to Cheryl’s journey, and see how it healed her, you will either be inspired or feel like you’re on the outside looking in. If grief is a place that can’t be easily mapped, then perhaps healing is too. There were things about her journey I couldn’t relate to, like her casual sexual encounter with that guy toward the end. I could see the act, but its importance was lost on me. There were other moments that had a similar lack of effect, not because I was judging her for anything (just because her journey doesn’t fit neatly into my Christian values of sexual morality doesn’t mean I don’t find value in her story), but because I couldn’t quite fathom how these things helped to heal her. I’d find myself feeling on one hand, “Wow, what an amazing journey she went on, and look how she recovered from the worst parts of grief,” then on the other, “Well, really she just went camping. Did it help that much?” Maybe I just haven’t gone on a thousand mile hike alone in the wilderness, or else I’d understand. After all, it’s Cheryl’s story, not mine. Maybe healing from grief is so personal a thing that not everyone will relate to somebody else’s journey. This is going to be a story that some find inspiring and powerful, and leave others feeling left behind in the woods.
The writing itself is really good. Cheryl Strayed has a strong, beautiful prose that carries the book and brings some weight to those scenes that, without it, would have fallen flat. Maybe that’s part of her secret: she writes about a long hike, but does it in such a way that it feels like an epic quest, impregnating moments with a power that they would not have had on their own.
Wild is a good book. Cheryl’s story is so fraught with pain, determination, and triumph that it’s impossible not to relate to her. Some will relate more than others, but hers is the kind of story that has something for everyone. It’s not going to cast the same spell on all of its readers, but it’s worth picking up and letting it try.
+ Beautiful, engaging prose + Inspiring and heartfelt + Emotional account of grief and personal growth + Will make you want to go hiking + Shows the fallout/consequences of grief and wrong choices
- Sometimes comes off as self-centered (perhaps forgivable in a personal memoir) - Sometimes treats subjects like sexuality and abortion in a casual manner - Redemptive message was not fully conveyed (Or: it didn't always feel to me that a long hike helped as much as the author claimed)
The Bottom Line
Cheryl Strayed's beautiful account of her personal journey through grief and her ultimate quest to find herself will inspire many, but others will find that the journey is so personal to the author that she is ultimately the only one who can find help and meaning in her quest.