Wild takes place outdoors and it is *also* a grief memoir

I’ve not blogged in awhile, and have mainly been using this space to publicize anything I’ve been doing that warrants publicizing, but this Salon post irritated me too much not to dash off an aggrieved response.

In “Nature Writing is Over” Jim Hinch focuses on the nature aspect of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to the exclusion of the book’s main thrust. I understand that Hinch has a literary concern: the demise of nature writing. This might be true. But I think he’s chosen the wrong book to make the point.

Present-day readers, Strayed seems intuitively to understand, will read about the outdoors only when what they’re actually reading about is a plucky young woman triumphing over grief and bad boyfriends on an audacious long-distance hike.

Pardon my one-track mind, but the grief aspect of the book is not the throwaway that it appears in this sentence. The grief aspect is the book. I also take issue with the argument that Wild is an “Eat, Pray, Love-style autobiographical quest that only happens to be set in the outdoors.” (Certainly that comparison can only be given to a book not deemed to be “serious” literature?)

What readers are “actually reading about” in Wild is a young woman (Hinch uses the word “plucky.” When was the last time you heard a male protagonist be described as “plucky”? I’ll wait) who gradually over time and over miles traveled in her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail learns to face the rest of her life without her beloved mother.

I don’t agree that Strayed set out to write strictly a “nature” book; or a book in which readers get to nature “only” when “actually reading about” a “plucky young woman,” and I profoundly disagree that Strayed “intuitively understands” this. The book is “about” a young woman coming to terms with the intense loss of the person she loved most in the world. That loss and grief and piercing absence defines and structures the book, it defines and structures the drugs and risky sex that the narrator experiments with, and it defines and structures the hike along the trail. Strayed has written elsewhere about the diminishment of love and loss in a culture that can only understand intense grief over romantic loss (“The Love of My Life”); to seek to define Wild only along the lines of nature writing again diminishes that love and that grief.

Hinch quotes from a section in which Strayed encounters a fox;

[A]s if by naming him I could both defend myself against him and also draw him nearer. He raised his fine-boned head, but remained standing as he’d been and studied me for several seconds more before turning away without alarm to continue walking across the clearing and into the trees.

“Come back,” I called lightly, and then suddenly shouted, “MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM!” I didn’t know the word was going to come out of my mouth until it did.

then later complains that she doesn’t follow the fox, and makes absolutely no mention of the narrator’s “MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM!”

Hinch has a premise to explore; that nature writing is over, and that the solipsism of present-day writers and readers is either to blame or is evidence of that fact. Then he pins the solipsistic non-nature-writing nature writer label onto Strayed and her beautiful book Wild, which is fundamentally about grief, and chides her for focusing the narrative on herself. Which is what we do. When we are grieving the person we loved most in the world.

Strayed is not keen to abandon herself to the self-willed rhythms of a landscape. She goes to the landscape to find herself. She is the object of her own quest.

Precisely how the wild landscapes Strayed passes through rescue her from her myriad troubles remains unexplored.

Argh! What? Did we read the same book? I hate conflating writer or critic with autobiography, but I’m going to do it: Has Hinch never lost anyone important? There is no “rescue” from trouble; there is learning to live with it. And I wouldn’t even read the troubles in Strayed’s life as “myriad,” again, there was her bond with the seminal person in her life, and there was the way her life unravelled after that person’s untimely death. Strayed writes at length throughout the book about her relationship with her mother, and shows, not tells us, why that relationship is so important to her. Her mother dies. She is devastated. She reacts at times badly. She hurts her husband. She hurts herself. She decides to go into the wilderness, and in the wilderness, she learns to stand on her own two feet. She comes to terms with the fact that her mother is gone from her utterly and physically, but she also comes to terms with the fact that her mother will always be with her. The wild landscapes transmute Strayed into the woman she is now, the motherless woman, the strong woman. The “Wild” of the title is as much reflective of the wild, lost, ‘strayed’ animal Strayed is at the beginning of the narrative, as it is the wild places into which she wanders.

To Hinch I say, complain about the demise of nature writing, fine. But you’re missing the point when you use this book to prop up your thesis.

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