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Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Review by the Divorced Breadwinner Mom

Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Author: Cheryl Strayed

Synopsis: The first pick for Oprah’s book club 2.0, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is a memoir of her 1100-mile journey along the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). As most probably know, either from the Oprah book club selection or, more recently, from the movie starring Reese Witherspoon, at 26 Strayed set out to hike the PCT as a way to escape the life she was living and start anew after losing her mother to cancer a few years before and then divorcing her husband as her life unraveled after her mother’s death.

The book includes some of the back story – Strayed’s relationship with her mother, marriage at an early age to husband Paul, and some details about her mother’s diagnosis of lung cancer and quick deterioration and death. Its primary focus, though, is Strayed’s journey on the PCT where she describes her experiences, reflections, emotions, and challenges along the way. While there is no climactic catharsis or major turning point in the story, Strayed grows stronger and more resilient as she hauls her heavy backpack “Monster” across the miles, encounters mostly friendly and helpful strangers, and sinks into the rhythm of the steps she takes over many months on the trail.

Who Would Benefit? Divorced moms (and others) will appreciate a good story, and this one fits the bill. Strayed is a gifted writer whose prose quickly draws the reader in and helps us see and feel the experiences she describes, from losing her mother to struggling with her marriage and decision to divorce, to lifting her backpack or agonizing over too-tight boots and aching feet. Many divorced women will identify with Strayed’s confusion about loving her husband and yet not being able to remain faithful and in a committed relationship, and with her longing to return to that familiar relationship after divorce. Most divorced moms may not relate as directly to Strayed’s choice to spend a summer on the trail, and this may not be an option for mom readers. But living vicariously on the trail through Strayed’s descriptions might be a great way to experience secondhand what it would be like and perhaps inspire some to take up day hikes or occasional solitary walks to feed their souls.

Why I Picked it Up: I had read about Wild when Oprah announced it for her book club 2.0 selection, and it didn’t really resonate at the time. It struck me as a drastic measure to spend the summer hiking the PCT to deal with the grief of losing a parent. But I was reminded of the book again when information about the movie began hitting the press, and I was prompted to read the book from the perspective of a woman who likes to hike alone and who has experienced much flack for that choice. I thought I might learn something from another woman’s experiences.

What I Liked: I was drawn in immediately by Strayed’s writing style and how clearly she articulated her emotions across a variety of circumstances and events, including an alcoholic father who left early in her life, the hard scrabble growing up years, her closeness to her mother, and her powerlessness to do anything about some of the life choices she was making, even knowing they weren’t in her best interest. She strikes a nice balance of detail and summary, so the book never drags or draws the reader down. She keeps us moving, as she moves along the trail. Her resourcefulness, determination and courage were inspirational to me. And I found her experiences to be much like my own in that she expected to have time to grieve and analyze and heal from her mother’s death and her divorce as she spent all that time alone, but most of her focus was on survival and the rigors of the trail. Yet healing occurred in other ways as she walked. I particularly liked her recognition at the end of the journey about how many people were kind and helpful and how few were not. That kind of vision – seeing with new eyes – seems as important a healing as any for all of us. It’s also a good read.

What I Didn’t Like: It was hard to agree with some of Strayed’s choices, even after she set out on the trail (e.g., drugs, men), but it is her story, and she is honest in sharing all the parts – good and not so flattering. I respect that choice even though I don’t think I would share some of those details with the general public or for my children to read.

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