Forrest Marchinton's Reviews > Into the Wild

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
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Feb 26, 2008

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Read in January, 1998

n April 1992, a young 20-something walked into the Alaskan bush to live off the land and experience Reality. His emaciated body was found four months later. Some of you may have heard about the incident; it was reported in an article in Outside magazine, and carried by some news services. Some lauded him as a new Thoreau, living life to the fullest and taking the consequences; others say he was a stupid, hopeless romantic, an example of what happens when suburbanites try to do The Nature Thing.

Who was Chris McCandless? He was naïve. He was Immortal. Like many of that age, he thought that if he wanted something passionately enough, he was entitled to it. Many of us secretly envy his kind, the drifters who revel in "owning no more possessions than you can carry on your back at a full run," for whom each day is an adventure, an indelible experience. To paraphrase Monty Python, those who live free in the wilderness subsequently die free in the wilderness.

The author suggests that one of his flaws was that he refused to learn from others. He was native talent embodied, making him very good at anything he tried. But he wouldn't listen to the advice of experts, to realize his potential for excellence. Also, one friend commented that although he was a tireless worker even on the nastiest jobs, he didn't have much common sense.

He was independent, that's true enough. He as much as said he wanted to see if he could make it on his own. But it was also clear to me that he needed people for survival. While he survived some dangerous (if stupid) situations on his own, he needed people to pull his fat out of the fire on occasion. For example, in the beginning of his long journey, he ignorantly got his truck disabled in a flash flood; some motorists found him on the verge of heat stroke from traveling through the desert all day. When he was hopelessly lost in a Mexican swamp, Chris stumbled upon some duck hunters who towed his canoe to safety. In the last and terminal episode of his short life, his saviors showed up three weeks too late.

Maybe I'm being too hard on the guy. After all, he managed to last longer than most of us would. But his sin was naiveté, and Nature doesn't give a tinker's damn about our reasons for screwing up.

What killed him? A combination of things. Number one, he purposefully went into the bush without a quad map (lacking a "blank spot on the map" to go to, speculates Krakauer, he ditched the map so that "In his mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita"). When he had found what he had been looking for and began to hike his way out, he found his way blocked by a river flooded by glacier meltwater. With no map, he couldn't know that a 30 minute hike would have brought him to an abandoned hydrology station with a functional cable crossing. And so he was forced to wait out the summer.
The second error, more forgivable but fatal, was that he poisoned himself. Despite all his hunting and gathering, July found him scrawny and gaunt. Trying to improve his diet, he at the seeds of the wild potato, which at the time contained an toxin which blocks nutrient intake. I say forgivable because his plant books made no mention of this, although a botanist would have guessed this property of the potato family. If he was in good health, his body would have flushed the inhibitors from his system in time, but as it was he had no sugar or protein to spare.

Jon Krakauer, an outdoor writer, is fixated on McCandless. He draws on Chris' writings and photos along with interviews with family and people Chris met on his trek. In the book he relates the ends of others who braved Alaska for whatever reason, from arrogance to ignorance to insanity. He uses his own personal experiences, including his relationship with his father and a foolhardy, nearly fatal climb on a peak in (again) Alaska to bring some insight to Chris' mindset.

So is there a moral to this story? That Mother Nature doesn't suffer fools gladly? "Be Prepared?" As with most things, I suspect that the meaning found in this story will be personalized, unique for each one who reads it.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Andrew This is an excellent overview of the major issues and themes explored in "Into The Wild." I guess my only question, which you don't seem to address explicitly in the review, is "Why only 2 stars?"

To me, at least, this book deserves at least three, maybe four stars for providing such a well-wrought retelling of McCandless's physical and emotional/spiritual journey. To me, the "stupid college boy or romantic idealist debate" this story provokes is well worth having, especially when enriched by other literature and philosophy of "the Outsider" - (see, e.g., the book with that name by Colin Wilson)

Forrest Marchinton You probably have a point on the book’s worth. I’ll try to explain where I’m coming from.

It’s been years since I’ve read the book, and what I remember about it is pretty well encapsulated in the review I wrote at the time. That, and the author interjecting his own personal story at time – it may not be fair of me, but if a book is about someone else, I find it a bit egotistical for the writer to involve himself. I don’t read much, or fast, and what I remember of this one makes me not want to read it again.

Further, the low score is a backlash against all the people who see this as a life-changing read, who hold this guy up as someone to emulate, without noticing the fatal flaws and mistakes that he repeatedly ignored until luck ran out. In short, I’m not hearing a debate. If the average person that reads the book doesn’t see past the naïve idealism, why would I recommend the book?

Finally, I know these ratings aren’t exactly a bell curve situation, but I didn’t want everything I put up to be 4 and 5.

I’m new at this sort of thing. Do I rate based on how much I enjoyed a book? On how worthwhile I think it is? On how well-written it is? These are completely different criteria. I suspect I’ll fine-tune ratings in the future.

Andrew OK - thanks for the clarification. I agree that Krakauer might have presented the material more directly, and made some different choices.

In my class debates on the issue, I like to wrap up by suggesting a compromise position (which Krakauer more or less endorses) that McCandless was reckless, immature, and naive BUT he was also a passionate and courageous thinker and feeler.

As far as the ratings, I guess it is all subjective, but 2 stars seems decidedly negative and I wasn't seeing a clear basis for that opinion in your review.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Its certainly your choice how you rate the book and I rate mainly on how much I enjoyed reading a book. I really like your point about his naïve idealism which I always think of as sheer stupidity but then I am cynical. However, I also believe he was suicidal. People chose many different ways to kill themselves.

message 5: by Cem/Lucky (new)

Cem/Lucky oh my dear, you are absolutely right. i love this book and Chris is just like me. I love his style of writing and thinking and it's wonderful to identify with this awesome guy. I thank you for your opinion and for me it's also a hero. His reaction of leaving his parents was the right one to found himself. Me and my boyfriend Frodo want to find us also and this book inspired us so much.

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