This is a post in my 50 Nifty series, in which I’m reading through 50 books that embody each of the 50 United States. Find out why I’m doing this and which books I’m reading when (so you can read along) by checking out my first 50Nifty post, or else browse all 50Nifty posts by clicking here!
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
—Somewhat spoiler alert: the book begins with the major plot point I’ll introduce in the next paragraph, so I’m not about to tell you anything you won’t see on the front cover, but the 2007 movie based on this story is more suspenseful, so if you want to keep that mystery alive, I suggest not reading further.—
Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild chronicles recent college graduate Chris McCandless’s journey from Atlanta to Alaska in the early 1990s. It might have been a trip “from Atlanta to Alaska and back,” but tragically, McCandless perished in the Alaskan wilderness, which the reader finds out in the first chapter (in case he or she missed it on the cover). The book jumps around a little bit chronologically but is easy to follow, and Krakauer adds substance to the very bare bones of McCandless’s diary with interviews and letters from people he met along the way, as well as relevant passages from books McCandless read and other Alaskan adventure stories, creating an engaging story of a young man’s epic quest.
Some of the comments on the original Brooklyn Magazine article took issue with Into the Wild being selected for Alaska because commenters thought it was more of a journey story than one about Alaska, but after reading it last week, I think it’s a perfect fit. Yes, there are other parts of the country described in the story, but Chris McCandless’s ultimate goal and ultimate downfall was Alaska, a place that embodies so much about his quest. In the famous recording of “New York, New York,” Frank Sinatra croons, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” and on the other side of the spectrum, Alaska is the outdoor enthusiast’s NYC; one could imagine Chris McCandless yelling those same words because Alaska poses the ultimate conquest. It is remote, inhospitable, and in every sense of the word, wild. That’s what drew McCandless (and scores like him) in the first place, and ultimately, it’s what caused his demise.
I think one reason McCandless’s story is so absorbing and then heartbreaking is because we want these epic quests to succeed. Here’s someone who didn’t just talk about going out and doing something big; he actually went out and did it. We root for those courageous enough to risk everything to be rewarded for their leap of faith. We want the near death experiences, but with emphasis on the word “near.” We want to feel powerful and one way to feel that is to hear of how we overcame nature or outsmarted death. The cold reality that so many do die in the midst of similar pursuits is a harsh wake up call.
In the author’s note, Krakauer mentions that opinions about Chris are divided between those who admired him and those who thought him a fool, but Krakauer asks the reader to decide for him- or herself. It’s easy to be sympathetic to both viewpoints, as there were moments when his bravery or stupidity had me shaking my head either in wonder or disbelief, but overall, Chris seemed similar to many other 20-somethings: he was restless, had an insatiable appetite for adventure, and felt invincible. He was kind and generous in spirit to all but his own parents, against whom he held a deep grudge. Had he emerged alive, he’d likely have grown a lot and there are hints in the book that he was ready to re-enter society in a meaningful way. After all, he was bright, driven, and had been successful with many endeavors in the past, but the tragedy was he did not emerge alive, and therefore we will never know.
The book made me think a lot about mortality, community, vulnerability, and other –itys that I don’t intentionally think about very often, and I’d recommend this book if for no other reason than it might make you think about those things a bit, too. Beware, though, that although Alaska is a formidable character in this book, it is also an enticing destination, although if I ever do make it out there, it will likely be with a reputable outfitter and more than just 10 pounds of rice in my pack.