At least 10 years ago, I have always wanted to read this book.
In April 1992, after he graduated with a first in college, Chris McCandless set off alone into the Alaskan wild. He gave all his savings ($24,000) to Oxfam, abandoned his car and his possessions, and burnt the money in his wallet, determined to live a life of independence and living off the earth.
Four months later he was found… (here I’m not introducing any spoiler as it is a well known fact, explained right at the beginning of the book), starved to death near Lake Wentitika in Denali National Park and Preserve. In piercing together the final days of travels of Chris, who nick named himself Alexandra the Supertramp, Jon Krakauer writes about the story of Chris, the heart of wilderness (being a lover of wilderness himself), its terrible beauty and its unforgiving harshness.
Chris appears to be a polite, well-liked, intelligent young man. His favourite and adored writers are Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Jack London. Why would a young man with a promising future walks into the wild without telling his parents where he is going?
Chris did not head straight to Alaska at the first instance. He actually spent a year or so, travelling around America, hitchhiking and working his way as he go along, ultimately wanting to head North to Fairbanks, Alaska. The book kept detail accounts of people that he had met. Most people said the same thing about him: likeable, polite and well read. Sometimes he sends postcards to friends he made on his journey, ironically not to his family, which I think is very sad.
Chris holds a fascination to the Wild and to the snow-covered North:
He read and re-reads The Call of the Wild, White Fang. He was so enthralled by these tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness. McCandless conveniently overlooked the fact that London himself had spent just a single winter in the North and that he died by his own hand on his California estate at the age of forty, a fatuous drunk, obese and pathetic, maintaining a sedentary existence that bore scant resemblance to the ideals he espoused in print. – page 45
For many moments while reading this book, I criticised Chris for being irresponsible, for not making contact with his parents and siblings, for being totally self-absorbed with his own mission and ideology. Then Krakauer gave me an insight into the childhood and upbringing of Chris, and I soon understand why Chris feels estranged from his family. Chris lives on his impossibly high ideals that no one could understand. Chris is a high achiever, a person who has many natural talents: entrepreneurial, plays the French horn, talented in sport and was a serious long distance runner. His father Walt said “Chris has so much natural talent, but if you tried to coach him, to polish his skill, to bring out that final ten percent, a wall went up.” Chris is an idealist and people around him often misunderstood him and many are unable to meet to his lofty standards. In so many ways I can relate to that.
It would be easy to stereotype Christopher McCandless as another boy who felt too much, a loopy young man who read too many books and lacked even a modicum of common sense. But that stereotype isn’t a good fit. McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself – more, in the end, than he could deliver. – page 183
Children can be harsh judges when it comes to their parents, disinclined to grant clemency, and this was especially true in Chris’s case. More even than most teens, he tended to see things in black and white. He measured himself and those around him by an impossibly rigorous moral code. – page 22
This book falls under the travel literature genre but I felt it undermines the weight of the book. It is a book about humanity, about family, ideology and a test of human boundaries that has gone awry. It also carries nuances of mystery as the book peel the layers of truth through witnesses’ account and investigations to arrive at the most sound conclusion for the cause of his death. The book also records 3 or 4 figures from the past who had wander into the wilderness, Alaska and the desert, and met their end; in a discussion to find out why these people did what they did. If there is any gripe about the book, it’s about Krakauer including a chapter which draws parallels between his own experiences and motivations and those of McCandless; which I thought is fair and well but the book is really about Chris McCandless, is it not?
“I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless you all!” is the entry in the diary, dated 12 August 1992. Chris felt that his body was weakening, that he was losing weight fast, that his end was near. On or shortly after this day, he died. Three weeks later, his body was discovered by a group of hunters. Had Chris still been alive, this encounter would have saved his life. If Chris hasn’t throw away his map, he would have crossed the river using the aluminium tram at further downstream of the Denali river.
Krakauer takes you into the journey of the wilderness and also a young man’s soul, in such a beautiful way that the man and the wilderness became one and I lifted my judgement and lament the death of an extraordinary young man. One of the most thought provoking travel literature I have ever read.
Into The Wild was adapted into a film, which was released on September 21, 2007.
Paperback. Publisher: Pan Books 2011; Length: 203 pages; Setting: United States of America. Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 13th May 2012.
Other thoughts: Andreas Moser
About the writer:
Jon Krakauer (born April 12, 1954) is an American writer and mountaineer, primarily known for his writing about the outdoors and mountain-climbing. He is the author of best-selling non-fiction books—Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman—as well as numerous magazine articles.
Krakauer was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, as the third of five children of Carol Ann (Jones) and Lewis Joseph Krakauer. His father was Jewish and his mother was a Unitarian of Scandinavian descent. He was raised in Corvallis, Oregon, from the age of two. His father introduced the young Krakauer to mountaineering at the age of eight. He competed in tennis at Corvallis High School and graduated in 1972. He went on to study at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where in 1976 he received his degree in Environmental Studies. In 1977, he fell in love with former climber Linda Mariam Moore and they married in 1980. They lived in Seattle, Washington, but moved to Boulder, Colorado, after the release of Into Thin Air.
Into the Wild was published in 1996 and shortly thereafter spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list.