Last week, I finished reading ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, and since then I have been organizing the review notes that I had typed into my phone whilst I read the book. The review notes were typed mainly on my commute to work, with my phone rested on the opened book. I was switching from reading to typing, which proved to be tricky in those moments when I had no seat, and the train had me rocking me back and forth!
In the past, I have had the tendency to over-analyse books whilst reading them, and this has been due to me wanting to untangle, discover and capture every writing element that I possibly can from the book. Although this process has taught me to better understand writing, I also think that it has slowed my reading, which in turn, has gone on to impact my annual reading goals. So this year, I am going to attempt to analyse a book ‘naturally’, rather than force the process. But, this will require me to have my sixth sense ‘open all hours’, and it will require me to capture those important messages when they magically emerge. During this sixth-sense process, I will look to capture emotional triggers, theme, symbolism, notable progressions in plot, character changes, description etc. And as always, I will include these discoveries in my reviews, to share with my readers, and other writers.
Before I begin my review of Wild, I would like to highlight to any new readers that might be reading, that I analyse and review books from a writing perspective (not from a synopsis step-by-step perspective). My reviews will certainly contain spoilers, (including elements of plot) so please bear this in mind if you plan to read the book, or watch the movie. But please do revisit once you have experienced it with your own eyes.
In a nutshell – Wild is about a young girl called Cheryl Strayed, who decides to backpack along the Pacific Crest Trail, in America, following the devastating loss of her Mother, the breakdown of her family, and the crumbling of her marriage. It is a non-fiction book, and Cheryl Strayed, is the author and main character in the book.
I have always had a fondness for books with an ‘adventure’ plot – plots where a character decides to embark on a journey, either for the purpose of escape and self-discovery, or because they are intrigued and excited by unknown lands. I have read some breath-taking books that contain such story-lines – The Backpacker by John Harris, The Beach by Alex Garland, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. These are books that have certainly opened my senses, and have taught me more about the world we live in. These books have also managed to rekindle the child in me – the child that desired adventure – the child that had spent countless summer holidays riding her bike with her younger sister (and pet Chihuahuas) in parks, woods and streets, seeking an imaginary world far beyond the one we knew.
Wild is written in the first-person point-of-view. The first-person point-of-view creates the closest protagonist-reader connection. It is certainly the best choice of perspective for this book, and any book where focus needs to be placed on the main character and his/her perspective of the world within the story (and where less focus needs to be placed on the perspectives and thoughts of other characters).
Backstory is introduced mostly when Cheryl’s memory is triggered by an event or situation in the present that directly links to an event or situation in her past. I haven’t noted this connection with any other book that I have read until now, so it is certainly an exciting discovery. One example of the present-to-past connection is when Cheryl touches the image of her own horse tattoo. The image of the horse directs her thoughts to her Mother, and allows Cheryl to describe her Mother’s desire for owning and riding a horse, and her life with a horse that she had come to own later on. This connection allows the writer to introduce deceased and past characters that are no longer a physical part of the character’s life, but are yet still very much alive and breathing in his/her mind. During this process, the writer has the chance to choose the best scenes in which to capture the personality of that character, and the reasons for their part in the story. During the present-to-past scenes, we get to witness Cheryl’s childhood – scenes that include her Mother, Father and Step-Father and siblings, as well as her more recent-past, romantic relationships. These scenes contribute to the various themes in the story, which help to build on the reader’s emotional response at the end. These past scenes slowly teach us to understand Cheryl’s history, and why she came to journey the Pacific Crest Trail.
In the early part of the story, we see Cheryl prepare her backpack with various essential and non-essential items. As writers, we must ensure that an item we introduce in the early part of a story is introduced in the later part of the story. This is an essential element in writing. One of the items that Cheryl introduces early on, whilst packing, is a whistle – and later we witness her blow the whistle to deter animals. Cheryl decided to name her backpack Monster, due to its heaviness and burden (symbolic of carrying a load), and she learned key lessons along the way. Characters informed her that certain items were not required for the journey and were only weighing her down. Cheryl had also carried books with her, and so she learned to rip and burn the pages of books that she had read at night (in her tent). A list of books burned and those not burned are listed at the end of the book, which is quite fascinating. It is from these books that we are informed of other writers and poets that inspired her.
During her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl describes the changing scenery that she witnesses. It is in these moments that she gives the most beautiful and poetic sentences. As a writer, I believe that the best time to ‘play poet’ is when describing a setting. Cheryl describes the setting through her five senses. She describes trees and plants by their names, which definitely assists in creating good description. We know from the story that she came to know these trees and plants species either from her experience of living in her hometown of Minnesota, or from the guide books that she carries with her on her journey. This brings to mind ‘intelligence of the character’. As writers, we must ensure that the intelligence of our characters is accurately translated through their thought, knowledge and dialogue. We cannot expect a character to be informed about something if that something has never been experienced in their life. I believe it is a wonderful thing when a writer provides the reader with new, interesting, and factual information about the world we live in. It’s a gift from the author.
Conflict is a crucial writing element in any book. Without conflict, we have characters that are unchallenged, and able to reach their goal easily. As readers we want to see our characters stumble and fall, because it makes the victory in the end feel so much better. Also, as readers, we also want to learn from their difficult situations and understand what we would do if we were faced with a similar situation. On finishing a book, a reader should feel that they have been on that peak and trough journey along with the character, and that they too have learned from the experience.
Conflict exists in various forms within Wild. There are internal and external conflicts that challenge Cheryl’s journey – and these are all used to different degrees, from minor to life-threatening. From the outset, Cheryl questions her ability to walk the trail. But she continues, pushes forward, and finds comfort through her connection with nature and the universe, and through the encouraging words from characters that she meets along the way. The external conflicts and obstacles included; meeting / potentially meeting various dangerous animals such as mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bulls, encounters with strange men (as a female solo traveller), extreme weathers (that threatened her survival), a lack of supplies (water) which threatened her life, and external forces such as companies letting her down with deliveries (her new boots). During these scenes of desperation, the plot had me thinking, ‘Is she going to make the journey?’, ‘Will she be involved in a terrible incident, or even die?’ The suspense was great, and I was on the edge of my seat throughout wondering about her outcome. Internal conflict came mostly from Cheryl’s past, and with her having to deal with the emotions and trauma that arose from it.
Conflict also came from ‘trail’ information (dialogue) that was given to Cheryl via other characters. These were conflicts that would have impacted her future journey – conflicts such as heavy snow on the trail beyond, and wild fires happening nearby. I thought this added to the suspense of the story and boosted the ‘What will happen?’ question that was on my mind throughout reading. The information gave me a glimpse into the kinds of dangers that she was about to face ahead. At this point I was asking ‘Will she continue? The story was very powerful in capturing the past, the present and the future. I liked how the story lived in all three places in time.
As mentioned previously, Cheryl encounters numerous characters along her journey, ranging from fellow travellers to local people that live in the places she passes. Cheryl enters into dialogue with these characters, and it is through the other character’s speech that we see Cheryl from different perspectives. This really helps to round her character. Dialogue is a particularly strong method with which to illustrate other character perspectives on a particular character, especially when the story is in a first-person point-of-view. Cheryl meets and separates with several friends along the way. The friendship characters inform her about information on the trail, they give her tips on how to use backpacking equipment (such as an ice axe), they inform her on how she can lighten the backpack load, and they also provide her with words of wisdom, which helps to give her strength. Two characters give her spiritual mascots to take on her journey (a Bob Marley t-shirt and a Black Feather). The black feather acts as symbolism in the novel – meaning ‘renewal’. Cheryl also embarked on a 24-hour romance that highlighted her loneliness, and her weakness for men. It is something she disliked about herself, and by the end of the story we witness her change (as she doesn’t take up the offer of a date with a businessman she crosses paths with at the end of the book). Throughout the story, Cheryl opts to leave other characters in order to be alone, and I believe that it was in the moments in which she was alone that she was healing the most.
Throughout the journey, Cheryl reaches milestones, and we are told of them throughout the book. It is important to keep the reader on par with the time-frame of a story, and in this particular story the nautical miles covered was the most suitable form. We watch the days pass and the nights arrive, and this also acts as a great short-term time-frame. A day beginning and a day ending can form great frames for creating scenes. Milestones also helped her with her own journey because it was a way in which she could track her progress. The milestones also informed the reader of specific geographical places and the distances between them. Kennedy Meadows, known as the gateway to High Sierra, was one of Cheryl’s most anticipated milestones, and we really feel the distance involved in her reaching this particular point. As her journey progressed, we see how she began to connect with nature and how it helped to soothe her internal pain (pain from family, relationships, drug abuse) and external pain (ruined feet, sore hips). She grows stronger and stronger with each passing day, and her mind and body are changing for the better. Character change is such an important element in writing, and this book is a fine example of a character changing both internally and externally.
Cheryl witnessed her own physical change, in the form of a mirror. She glimpses a look at her new athletic frame, and she wonders how Greg (her 24 hour romance) will view her. She also experiences her own change in taste for food and drink, and she caves into luxuries such as Snapple lemonade and ice-cream. She turns to foods that she would never have been drawn to in her previous life. When she hears music for the first time in days (whilst being picked up in a truck), she realizes how much she had taken the sounds for granted. Cheryl is aware that she is changing, and the reader is given examples through several of the senses.
At the end of the book, she feels the desire to touch the Bridge of the Gods, the final part of the trail – this is the finishing moment – like the breaking of the tape after running a marathon. During the trail, she often contemplated where she would live afterwards, and regularly mentioned that she would move to Portland with a friend. She does just this, and manages to write this very book, both in Portland, and in other locations.
Cheryl tells us how she would never have known that she would be married with children, that she would have tracked down friends from the trail. This is definitely information that the reader would have wanted to know. Because the book was about healing and finding strength, we would have felt cheated without it. As writers, we should always be asking ourselves whether we are including everything that we need to within our writing. We should ask ourselves, ‘Will the reader have any remaining questions once they have finished the book?’
Lastly, there is one powerful sentence that Cheryl mentions in the book, and for me it summarizes the entire novel perfectly.
“It was the idea of not doing it that scared me.”
Wild was an inspiring and exciting read, and it is certainly a story that will stay in my mind (along with all of the other wonderful adventure stories that I am grateful to have discovered in my life).
Until next time,
Happy reading and writing!