Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Book: Into the Wild

Our March Page Turners book was Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. It's the true story about a young idealist American, Chris McCandless, who starved to death in the wilds of the Alaskan interior back in 1992. For the two years prior to this ultimate 'boys own adventure', McCandless had cut himself off from his family and friends, then hitch-hiked and worked his way around parts of America in true peripatetic fashion.

The book is a journalistic account of his travels, constructed from interviews with people he met in his wanderings, his own diaries, and conversations with his devastated family. It also delves into the stories of others who had similar experiences, either in Alaska or elsewhere, including the author himself, whose background is in mountaineering.

I found the premise interesting. What sort of person abandons his family and friends and disappears with no contact? What kind of person pushes himself to the limits and attempts to live off the land in the heart of Alaska? What did he do wrong that caused him to be killed?

The book answers all these questions in the end, and is very thought-provoking. But it takes a rather circuitous route in getting there. I confess I found myself at many stages along the way just wanting to read the magazine article that was the genesis of the book, because the constant anecdotes, presented in seemingly random order, made the book disjointed to read and consequently frustrating. Can we find out what happened in Alaska already?

Once the end is reached, however, the complete story of a strange and highly intelligent (albeit mentally unhinged, in my opinion) young man of 24 has unfolded. His motivations were to me largely unfathomable -- he was clearly very mixed up. His diaries and scribblings in the margins of novels such as Jack London's White Fang, and various Tolstoy, are those of an idealist.

The author's viewpoint and interpretation of events also colour the story significantly -- one senses Krakauer's reluctant admiration for McCandless's ideals. (Most of the PT group thought he was plain mad.)

McCandless's story is tragic in some respects, because he could have saved himself with a greater knowledge of the area (or a map and compass), but that would have subverted all his intentions -- which were to push himself to the brink and see if he could survive. He wanted to feel lost, simply for the challenge of it. (Which brings one to wonder why he allowed himself to live in an abandoned bus all those months.)

The book provoked a strong reaction in most of our group members, the prevailing sentiment being that McCandless was a selfish fool. I didn't have a strong emotional reaction, however. For me it was intellectually interesting, but not emotionally engaging.

The above image is a self-portrait, taken mere days before his death, with Chris McCandless holding his letter of farewell to the world.
PS - There is also a movie, which I haven't seen.


  1. so what caused him to be killed? go on, you can tell me...

  2. starvation, possibly kicked-on by something toxic that he ate, but it's a subject of debate.