I read this book many years ago, and I watched the movie version of it at some point as well, but it’s been a while since I thought much about it until I assigned it to my freshmen to read over break. So there I was in the Upper Peninsula at our friends’ cabin surrounded by two feet of snow rereading this book thinking about how cozy I was in front of the wood-burning stove and how uninterested I’d be in heading into the Alaskan wild alone. The Chris McCandless story has been controversial ever since Krakauer first published an article in Outside Magazine in January of 1993, nine months after McCandless’s body was found in an abandoned bus where he’d been living. Krakauer, by his own admission, found many parallels between McCandless and himself, and so, intrigued and bothered by the mystery of his death, he set out to further research it and eventually wrote this book which brings to light many issues relating to youth culture: irresponsible craziness vs. unprepared idealism; ever-present high expectations; reliance on technology; the extra “baggage” of life that we could live without; seeking a new, uncharted path; our money culture; religion; self-reliance; conformity; materialism; the difference between running away and taking a break from life, etc. These are some of the many ideas McCandless was struggling with, and there is much to admire about him. Perhaps most evident is his willingness to question. He wasn’t willing to become a bobble-head moving from point A to B to C without questioning the value of A, B, and C. On the other hand, one could argue that he was reckless and naive and unwilling to make a commitment to any human being other than himself, which makes him narcissistic. Personally, I think he just didn’t fit in, and didn’t want to try very hard, so he pushed away anyone who got too close, anyone with whom he felt a connection. Connection and relationships take work, and he didn’t seem willing to take on anything beyond his own mind and body. The circumstances surrounding his death have been controversial for many years, and Krakauer picked up the story once again just recently as he discovered new information, publishing a follow-up article in the New Yorker which essentially explains that the wild potato seeds McCandless had been eating contained an amino acid that causes paralysis and eventually, death. Here’s the article: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/09/how-chris-mccandless-died.html.
Krakauer continues to be one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and though he obviously sees McCandless as a bit of a kindred spirit, I do think his reporting is accurate. And his writing is excellent, as always. (nonfiction)