Contrary to widely held scholastic beliefs surely followed by a majority of students today, the best instance to report on a book one has just read is not immediately after the final page is turned.
Moreover, it certainly should not take place during the course of reading, regardless of the number of rapidly decreasing hours standing between the reader and the report deadline. No, the more proper process requires a time of reflection used to act as a bridge between an instantaneous summary and a more well rounded comprehension of the just completed literary piece.
Thus I begin my examination of our free library offerings, one book at a time – using these statements to help illustrate how drastically different a review of this entry, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, would have been without a few days reflection. A simple story of the life and death of one young man, this is not.
The initial seed to scour for this book was planted many months ago as I sat on the floor of a tiny hostel kitchen (in name only as all it contained was a refrigerator, sink and electric kettle) in Nice, France. It was there I was cornered by a young Englishman and, thus, became the unwilling recipient of the boastful ruminations about his traveling adventures.
Yet amid his own praise for all things him, he was kind enough to offer equally high praise for this true story recounting the last two years in the life of Chris McCandless. I was immediately hooked once I learned the book had been penned by the same man who used his own harrowing experiences amid a disastrous Everest expedition as the basis for Into Thin Air.
This time, Krakauer fleshed out his own 1993 article for Outside magazine on the short life and mysterious circumstances surrounding McCandless’ death in the wilderness, and ended up with a very personal story of human strength, fragility and connection.
In the early summer months of 1990, shortly after his college graduation ceremony, Chris McCandless chose to disassociate himself from his parents and any connection to his East Coast upper middle class upbringing, donated every cent of his money to charity and disappeared on a solitary odyssey in the tradition of his literary idols, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London.
For a little over the next two years, he lived an itinerant existence of his own choosing, one which culminated in his ultimate – yet ultimately fatal – wish to experience a life in the wilds of the Alaska Range.
Although Chris McCandless aimed to separate himself completely from civilization and experience a life as close to nature as possible, human connections made during his journey become the backbone of Into the Wild, producing an effect as lasting and profound for the reader as they obviously have become for the participants telling their stories.
A close connection to McCandless and his quest is boldly evident with regard to the author as well, himself an avid adventurer who holds up his own youthful idealistic viewpoint for comparison.
In retracing the steps of Chris McCandless, Krakauer has done a meticulous job seeking out each person who came to be connected with this young wanderer in one form or another. From the 80 year old man who so cherished his companionship he traded in his home and possessions for an outdoor campsite in anticipation of McCandless’ return to the Arizona ranger who eventually put his abandoned car to use with tremendous success as an undercover vehicle for drug interdiction, various connections stretch out like a spider web with this wishful loner at the center.
Page after page provides another in a series of instances in which a complete stranger encountering McCandless almost immediately develops a parent-like attachment and fondness for him. The emotional gut check is in reading these passages side-by-side commentary by his real family, the one he abandoned, as they recount in detail what they had to go through in complete and utter darkness until learning of his fate.
As Krakauer reminds us repeatedly throughout the book, his initial Outside article on McCandless generated the highest amount of reader feedback in the magazine’s history, most of it negative. They questioned why such an obviously foolhardy, unprepared person with unrealistic ideals was being singled out and glorified for actions which caused his death.
I must admit at times I began to agree with them, often frustrated in Chris McCandless stubbornness and inability to open up and allow in those who obviously cared a great deal for him. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, this is no simple story of the life and death of a man, and it deserves proper reflection.
Today, if you were to ‘google’ the name Chris McCandless, you’ll find among the entries heated discussions comparing McCandless to both Robert Frost and Jesus Christ as well as a detailed diary of an Alaskan Pacific University Environmental Studies class trip to his final resting place. Even after his death, this intelligent drifter still manages to inspire great reflection and unreciprocated emotional attachment, much as he did during those final years of his life.
In the end, the people for whom I felt the greatest sorrow were the parents he left behind. Journal entries of his final months suggest he may have ultimately realized happiness truly is best when shared and he was ready to leave the wilderness behind to re-enter society – tragically, this realization came too late for him.
While Chris McCandless did not have the opportunity to do so in life, his parents re-connect with their long-missing son during a solemn visit to the Alaskan wilderness ‘home’ of his final months. Among the multitude of notes left behind, he had written a brief adios, “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!”