Book Review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I was wandering through a small bookshop in Fargo, North Dakota when I found a copy of Wild and bought it on impulse. I should have been focused on Christmas shopping for friends and family rather than myself, but we had a long drive back to Chicago the next day with my inlaws and I knew I needed something to read on the ride home. Friends had recommended Strayed’s memoir to me on several different occasions, and I’d also had friends say they were disappointed by it, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity.

For those of you that haven’t heard of it, Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. In the wake of her mother’s death from lung cancer, Strayed’s relationships to her siblings and stepdad disintegrated and she destroyed her marriage with a series of infidelities. So in the summer of 1995, at the age of 26 and newly divorced, Strayed packed up her life and hiked 1,100 miles – completely alone – from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State in order to “save herself.”

Few books have made me cry harder than this one. Strayed’s writing is sharp and raw and honest in a way that made me feel as though I was hiking 1,100 miles right through her emotions. Considering that I lost my own mother to cancer two short years ago at nearly the same age and stage of my life, it wasn’t hard for me to empathize. Our lives and beliefs are very different from one another, but our bonds to our mothers and their subsequent deaths are agonizingly similar.

“She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”

While I know myself better than to think I could hike a thousand miles through desert and wilderness all alone, even so, grief feels exactly that way: you are walking through a solitary, unyielding landscape while the rest of the world hums on around you in the distance.

I have often longed for a literal wilderness to run to in my own journey through grief. Living “life as usual” after this kind of loss is in some ways harder than doing what Strayed did. The normalcy of everyday life doesn’t reflect the wildness and turmoil taking place in your inner life. Thus, the urge to self-destruct is more powerful than one imagines before such profound loss. This urge is not so much a desire to destroy every good thing you have left so much as it is a force at work inside you, a chasm within yourself, a black hole where the bright star of your loved one once existed, around which you once orbited, steady and safe. You think yourself a reasonable, grounded, healthy person with a support system of loved ones who will never let you waiver over the edges of your life … until that person who loved you and knew you better than anyone else is gone. Then the vast emptiness left in their place threatens to swallow your life whole, no matter how hard you try. It is disorienting and therefore very hard to recover any sense of stability you may have had in that “before” version of yourself. Were it not for my family and my faith, I may have made similar choices to Strayed.

Strayed draws on the wildness of nature to help us better understand this wildness of grief. In the lifestyle that most of us live in (sub)urban sprawl, it’s easy to ignore life’s transience, but in the wilderness, we’re forced into awareness of nature’s rhythms, to confront our smallness and mortality. Strayed captures this parallel journey between hiking the PCT and her emotional pilgrimage through grief with great power and precision. There are several parts of the book that made me teary and one part that was absolutely annihilating. I won’t allude to which passage because I think part of what made it so powerful was the element of surprise – one moment she’s hiking down the trail and the next, I am bent over the book sobbing uncontrollably, much to the bewilderment of my husband. It’s intense.

All of that being said, a few people warned me that Strayed’s book would disappoint me, and I have to admit that they were partly right. The end of her journey felt anticlimactic. I found myself wishing that she would have lingered longer over the moment when she reached her chosen destination, creating a stronger emotional shift as she ended her hike. After four months and 1,100 miles, I wanted there to be a vivid and tangible sense of resolution to counteract the emotional turmoil we find her in at the beginning.

But it’s this sense of disappointment that I think is important, and maybe even intentional on Strayed’s part. It speaks to the frustration of grief and how it never really and finally resolves itself. And I think that’s where I understand and respect her ending.

When you’ve suffered such a profound loss, you want to conquer grief once and for all and come away from it a totally transformed person, having straightened out your bent towards self-destruction, entirely at peace with yourself. You long for accomplishment. A clear beginning and end. But the reality is that you may come to a point in your grief when you feel like the worst is behind you, but instead of feeling fiercely victorious, you feel a sense of gratitude mixed with confusion. You wonder why you’re not crying with relief like you expected to. But it’s because you know that while you’ve reached this point, there will also be more moments ahead of you when you’ll feel the old familiar ache again.

You will realize anew that no matter where you are in life, you are always making the same choice.

“I looked north, in its direction – the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.”

Ultimately, I think Strayed remained to true to herself, to her journey, and to the universal experience of grief. As a writer in the midst of telling my own grief story, I’m challenged by that. I don’t necessarily want my readers to feel like I’ve wasted their time by the end of my book, but I also don’t want to leave them with the false impression that it all comes to a tidy, triumphant end. That’s just not the nature of grief. It is wild and untamed. Let it be.

Have you read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild? What did you think of it? Did it resonate with your experiences of grief ? Why or why not? What are the best memoirs you have read on grief? 

  • Jennifer Upton

    There hasn’t been a place in my life like the overgrown bed of weeds my husband and I pulled at until our already calloused hands bled, that has taught us more truth by digging up the lies. Your story so resonated with me today. It is simply beautiful….

    • Bethany Suckrow

      Thank you, Jennifer. It’s a relief to know that we’re not the only ones wrestling, you know? :)

  • Wendy van Eyck

    Beautiful. I need this reminder that even when we think we’re burying our hopes we are actually planting seeds for the future.

    • Bethany Suckrow

      “we think we’re burying our hopes we are actually planting seeds for the future.”

      That’s such a wonderful way of expressing that, Wendy. Even after writing this post and hitting publish, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I think you hit the nail on the head there. :)

  • Caris Adel

    This just made me instantly want to cry and I’m not sure why. This is honest – and poetic and good.

    • Bethany Suckrow

      Well you know what they say… “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” I’ve definitely shed a few over the past few days as I reflected on this piece and wrote it. Must be on the right track, I guess, although I don’t like making people sad. haha. Thanks for reading, friend. :)

  • Joy Lenton

    The tilling can feel full of toil, turmoil and trouble until the messy soil is turned and fresh green shoots of hope appear. Thank you for the reminder. One day we will look back and see the fruit we never realised was growing steadily all the time.

    • Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, Joy. :)

  • Sarah Bessey

    Oh, Bethany. This aches beauty and truth. We have been in that place – and still are there in many ways – with our work and callings and vocations and lives. Love this metaphor, you are one helluva writer.

    • Bethany Suckrow

      Thank you so much, Sarah. I made hubs read through all these comments last night because it’s so deeply encouraging for us to hear others say “yeah, we’ve been there.” :)

  • Leigh Kramer

    Yes, yes, yes. The time is coming. Love this, friend.

    • Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, friend.

  • Jennifer Lundberg

    To hold his dream for him when he cannot. To hope for one another when we cannot do it ourselves. Love this.

    • Bethany Suckrow

      YES, Jen. I didn’t say that directly, but that’s what I was feeling when I wrote this. Marriage and friendship is so much like that – holding onto hope for the other when they are losing it. :)

  • Renee Ronika

    We are here with you, tilling until it’s time. Thank you for this.

    • Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, Renee. Glad to have all of you by my side. :)

  • Christopher Johnson

    Reminds me of a part of a poem I wrote “I want my days to be self evident, that all days are created equal” So often we want our days to be productive, but then you have to realize that all days are days within themselves and no matter what you do “that” day, it fits within the overall path that makes up your life.

  • mamawest777

    That time is coming, but it is not yet now. – Living this sometimes minute by minute. Completely amazing post

  • Allison Vesterfelt

    “Today he feels about ready to bury it all – the hope he’s had for his music, the earnest effort of a decade practicing and playing, practicing and playing. It has yet to yield a real career, and he’s tired.”

    Tell Matt (and yourself) that I feel like this at least once a week. Then I take a nap, and talk to people who help me pluck my own weeds, and somehow I get ready to start planting again. Today I’ll tell you to “keep going!” and then tomorrow, I’ll probably ask you to tell me :)

    Thank you for sharing Bethany.

  • Katie Axelson

    This is beautiful.

  • Hila

    I can relate to this so much. I move between believing what I do – writing – is a worthwhile pursuit and feeling like it will yield nothing. But I agree with you: we are not given talents and passion for nothing, nor are we given struggle for nothing.