Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. Krakauer found himself fascinated by this young man and set out to tell his story.
I read this in print, which meant everyone could see what book I was reading (at work, on the bus), and I must say I was surprised at how polarizing McCandless (who primarily called himself Alex) is. Some people find his obsession with living off-grid admirable, while others found it wasteful and irresponsible. Regardless of what you think of Alex, Krakauer presents his story in an engaging way, starting with the bare facts of how he was discovered and then taking the reader through his own investigation into who Alex was.
I feel like a lot of us know a person who is some flavor of Alex. Someone who grew up with the world his oyster but pushed it away in pursuit of simpler things. Some people take this to a reasonable level. For instance, they might refuse the $25,000 in savings from their parents but also not give it away to charity. Or they might give that money away but keep enough to get started on, not actually burn money. It’s very interesting to me how many people react with such utter disdain for Alex burning the money. I think it’s a clear example of an act of youthful passion. He really believed in this way of life. He really wanted to distance himself from his family. So he destroyed something. I wonder, when people react so strongly to this, whether they, in their youth, were never moved to destroy something in a symbolic manner? Perhaps some people are just not so possessed by the passion of youth.
In any case, while Krakauer’s own opinion of Alex is pretty clear by the end of the book, he does a good job holding it off for quite a while, letting the reader make up their own mind. I also think he might not realize he does this but he draws some interesting parallels to Walden and Thoreau that might make people who dislike Alex realize the privilege Walden and Thoreau were exercising in choosing to “go into the woods” but a woods they could leave at any time.
As a person who grew up in a very rural area with a father who hunted and fished and a family who grew our own garden of food and learned to shoot a rifle at a young age, I understand many Alaskans’ disdain for Alex. There’s something insulting about someone who has studied and learned nothing or next to nothing about surviving off the land just waltzing in and claiming they can do it. And often these people put the locals who live there in danger, whether by needing rescuing or causing wildfires or what have you. I get that. But I also get the impulse those who were raised far from the land with too much handed to them on a platter have to go out and prove they can do it on their own. For a long time I myself couldn’t understand the downsides of coming from money but I have come to learn them from observing others who come from money. There is a certain freedom in family and money not going hand-in-hand and in being pushed into adulthood and making it on your own early.
If this clash of those living on the land and those desiring to abandon it all and live on the land intrigues you, you’ll enjoy this book. It’s well-written, even-handed, and demonstrates the value in taking a moment to consider other perspectives and not jump to heated conclusions.
4 out of 5 stars