Monday, September 03, 2007

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Anchor Books, 1996
Nonfiction; 207 pgs

Completed: 08/25/2007
Rating: * (Good)

First Sentence: Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn.

Reason for Reading: This is my fourth selection for the Nonfiction Five Challenge and my 1990's selection for the Reading Through the Decades Challenge. I had read Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which I found quite interesting. As a result, Into the Wild was added to my collection. It did not hurt that the book has received quite a bit of praise from fellow readers.

Comments: The idea of a young man striking out on his own, leaving behind a family that loved him with hardly a word, giving away his savings and burning what cash he had, changing his name and disappearing into the wilderness at first struck me as crazy. As the beginning chapters of Krakauer’s account of Christopher Johnson McCandless’ life unfolded, it crossed my mind several times that the man was probably suffering from some sort of mental illness.

He seemed to avoid intimacy, rebel against authority, isolated himself from family and old friends, completely broke off all his family ties, and was very reckless. That he made the dean’s list in college, was a good musician and in general had a good head on his shoulders, did not make a difference. In fact, Chis, aka Alex Supertramp as he was known on his travels, did make friends along the way and even kept in touch with many of them throughout the two years he was estranged from his family. He worked hard when he worked, was compassionate and caring. He experienced life in ways that many of us can never imagine. He seemed happy and content with his chosen path.

Jon Krakauer maps out Chris’ journey across America, into Mexico and Canada, and touches on moments in the man’s past that led him to be the man he became. Chris lived off the land, the generosity of others, worked for his food when he could, and, for the most part, shed the skin of materialism that he had grown up with. He set his own rules, traveled at his own pace, and answered to no one but himself. He was not completely selfish, however. It is quite clear that Chris had a big heart and even bigger ideals, realistic or not. He was intensely passionate and once he set his mind to do something, he did it. Was he someone to be admired? I came away from the book believing that he was in some respects. Mostly though, he was just your average early twenty-something year old questioning the establishment, testing himself, and searching for answers to questions that he probably did not even fully understand. Like many his age, he felt somewhat immortal and was overconfident. He was more adventuresome then most, perhaps even more driven. What happened to him was a tragedy.

Critics call him crazy, ill prepared, and reckless. Certainly to some extent he was ill prepared and reckless. Maybe even crazy. Had he survived and made it home again, his actions would be admired and he would be applauded for his strength and fortitude. Here would stand a guy who went after his dream and made it come true. Many would see that as success and something to admire. Because he died, however, it is easy to find fault and condemn him for his actions and to pick holes in his behavior and philosophy. The qualities we would admire in him if he had lived, he is criticized for in death. He was a risk taker, a dreamer, and definitely full of passion. For better or worse. Christopher lived his life according as he believed it should be lived.

Chris’ path is not one I would take nor is it one I necessarily agree with. I will not deny that at times I thought he was pretty careless and oblivious for a guy who supposedly was so smart. By the end of the book, I felt great sadness. Sadness for his family and his friends, especially those whose lives he touched. And sadness for Chris and the contributions to society he could have made if he lived.

Jon Krakauer’s account of Christopher Johnson McCandless’s life is painted in a kinder brush than certainly some of Chris’ critics would like. The author admits to relating to the subject of his book on a personal level, and even touches upon an experience of his own similar to the journey Chris set out on. I do think that Mr. Krakauer does a fair job of bringing up the viewpoints that do not match is own, countering them in turn.

Into the Wild is not the usual type of nonfiction book I am attracted to, and I cannot say I am eager to run out and read a copy of Into Thin Air. I’m sure it’s a fine book, but extreme sports like mountain climbing holds little interest for me. Maybe someday. After reading Into the Wild, my interest in visiting Alaska someday has intensified, I will give it that.

Miscellaneous: I was thumbing through Entertainment Weekly recently, soon after finishing this book, and came across mention of a movie based on the book. After Sean Penn read the book (multiple times, I might add), he was eager to bring it to the big screen. His dream has finally come true. Check out the movie trailer for Into the Wild. The movie is scheduled for US release on September 21st.

Read what Jeane had to say about this book:
Dog Ear Diary

14 comments:

  1. I heard about this story just the other day for the first time, because of the upcoming movie. My first thoughts, when reading the plot summary, were that he had been incredibly reckless, but I'm sure there must be more to it than just that. I'd like to read the book some day, even though it is such a sad story.

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  2. You make an excellent point that had Chris lived, he would have been lauded as a hero. I didn't think of that. But I would still have a hard time celebrating someone who made his mother worry like that for no reason.

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  3. I'm thinking about joining a reading challenge. Do you have any suggestions?

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  4. Nymeth - I do think he took a lot of chances he shouldn't have--and he certainly could have been more prepared.

    Kookie - I think he had a reason, just not one that you or I can really get behind. :-) I could understand his anger towards his father although his actions seemed awfully extreme. I imagine that's not really something someone his age gives much thought to though. Anger can sometimes wipe out reason.

    Ladytink - There are quite a few challenges going on right now and some starting up soon. A friend of mine has a blog devoted to listing the different reading challenges out there. If you are interested, you should definitely check in out: Nonfiction A Novel Challenge.

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  5. Wendy, great review! I remember really loving this book years ago when I read it. Yet I do agree with your observations. I didn't know it was being made into a movie and with Sean Penn-one of my favorite actors-it will be a must see. I am not in to extreme sports or anything either but again, really loved Into Thin Air. I hope you try it out some day.
    Jody

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  6. I didn't know it was being made into a movie either. I remember when the story was on 20/20. I thought Krakauer did a great job of tracing McCanless' trek around the country before he headed up to Alaska. I have read all of Krakauer's books and thought Into Thin Air was probably his best, maybe because it was so gut-wrenching for him personally, as he was mourning the loss of his fellow mountain climbers when he wrote the book.

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  7. Thank you, Jody! I'm looking forward to seeing the movie too. I imagine I may read Into Thin Air one day.

    KW - I agree, the author did do a great job documenting Chris's journey. I've heard that Into Think Air is one of his best.

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  8. I'll probably see the movie because Sean Penn is juat a great actor, but I think that Chris was a reckless foolish young man. If he'd lived, all he would have been able to do is throw it back in everyone's face that he lived through it, as if that's some kind of approval. People live through heroin addictions but it's not the best thing to try.

    If he had lived, he might have grown up a little. It's the youth and the passion and the intellect that we mourn for.

    I really need to read this book, don't I? I'll let you know if my actual reading of it matches what I think of it unread. Argh! I hate people who do this! Not me, not me.....

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  9. Carrie - I don't think Sean Penn actually is in the movie. He just wrote the screenplay and directed the film. I don't at all disagree that he was reckless, and while you and I might not put him on a pedestal had he survived, many people would. The media certainly would. As I've said before, I just think the whole situation was a tragedy. Chris wasn't a bad kid at all. He meant well regardless of how much we may criticize his choices. It's just plain sad all around.

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  10. This seems interesting. I have heard about the movie. I prefer books any day.

    Another non-fiction on my read list!

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  11. This book certainly seems to be very thought-provoking. I may have to see the movie. Thanks for the review.

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  12. Gautami Tripathy - Yes, books tend to always be better, I agree. :-)

    Framed - It's probably not a movie I would bother seeing, but having read the book, I will most likely watch it. I can't help myself.

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  13. I came across this book, quite by chance a couple of weeks ago, when a friend lent it to my husband as he recommended it. He accepted it out of politeness, but not really interested.
    I thought I would browse over it a little, (as I do with most of the books which get home) but also quite uninterested.
    Because McCandless' ordeal may be well-known in the USA, but here, in an non-English-speaking European country the story just lies too far.
    However, after a few pages I was completely hooked.
    I don't even know, quite well, why. It's probably the sum of the story itself, its ring of modern tragedy, together with McCandless' personality, his intelligence, his passion, high ideals and contradictions. But, most definitely, because of the way that Krakauer has told the story, dissecting it objectively and personally implied at the same time. Making it sound like a thriller, when we actually know the outcome of the story from the very beginning.
    So, here I am, surfing the Net in search of links and images of the places where things actually took place. And funnily enough, I find out there is a film about to come out.
    It's extremely thought-provoking that, after so many years, McCandless' story still affects and interests so many people.
    Don't you think so?

    ALICIA

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  14. Alicia - I think you are right about the draw to this story. It definitely is a modern tragedy. I do like Krakauer's writing very much, otherwise I probably wouldn't have read Into the Wild. I'm glad I did though. He seems to be very aware of himself and his subject matter and that comes across well in his writing.

    And I do agree, it is interesting that his story is still one that attracts so much attention. I think it's a story that speaks to people on many different levels.

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