Sunday, Jun 3, 2012
Publisher: Anchor Books/Random House
Publish Date: 1996
Pages: 207 Trade Paperback
Purchase: $10.17 at Amazon.com
Controversy Surrounding an Idealist…
Christopher McCandless, a young man decides to set out onto the Stampede Trail, part of the Alaskan wilderness, is on a quest to live off the land devoid of worldly possessions in April 1992. By August 1992, his body was found by hunters in an abandoned bus. He did not survive his mission.
Jon Krakauer wrote about this unlikely death in a magazine article in Outside. This article was met with much response from people who had met Chris McCandless along his journeys on the road. So much was uncovered by Krakauer, that he wrote the biography of Chris McCandless’ journeys and his experience in the wild.
Chris McCandless came from a somewhat wealthy family who loved him and wanted nothing but the best for him. An intelligent young man, he did well academically in high school and college. However, rather than attending law school as planned, he gave away his savings to a charity and hit the road in his Datsun B210. From the desert to the Pacific, to Mexico, and to Idaho, Chris traveled around the country on meager means. At times, he sought employment so that he was able to continue along on his adventure. At other times, he refused all help, burnt money, and was bound and determined to live off the land. This eccentric young man was an idealist at heart who treasured the works of Jack London and Tolstoy. He seemed to make an impact on several of the people whom he met on the road and spent time either working with or living nearby.
His decision to enter into the wild, however, meets controversy within the readers of my home. Noting that this book is not a newly published novel, like most of the books which I review on this website, this review was somewhat of a special project for me. My twin daughters, are reading this novel in their English Honors class at their high school. Part of their project included parental participation in reading and discussing this novel with them. As such, this book doesn’t match the normal genres which I enjoy reading and reviewing. The one thing that I can say about this book is that my daughters and I came to very different conclusions as to Chris McCandless’ actions and ideals.
For example, my daughter Deanna believes that Chris McCandless was ill-prepared for his journey into the wild, however had he been prepared and brought proper provisions with him, then he wouldn’t have truly been going into the wild and living off the land. Further, she maintains that his decision to go live out his Alaskan dream could have been successful even without the items he didn’t bring on his journey into the wilderness. Her opinion is based on the fact that Chris survived for several months prior to his death by living off the land plus 10 pounds of rice. She contends that had he not made the mistake of eating the wrong type of plant seed, that he would have survived his ordeal.
My other daughter, Nicole, states that she believes that Chris was not on a suicide mission, but rather on a journey to find freedom from everything that was wrong with the world. Nicole maintains that Chris was rebelling against the expectations of his family and those of high-society. He believed that people shouldn’t be left to starve on the street while others prospered. She thinks that it was not a good decision for Chris to enter to the wilderness with such a small amount of survival items, however that his mission to discover himself spiritually and find inner peace was an admirable choice. She believes that his death was avoidable had he made better choices, however that his ideals and expectations about his journey were admirable.
My opinion about Chris is that his idealism and arrogance overtook his sensibility. He was completely ill-prepared for his journey and underestimated the true force of nature. Page 180 of the book states:
“By design McCandless came into the country with insufficient provisions, and he lacked certain pieces of equipment deemed essential by many Alaskans: a large-caliber rifle, map and compass, an ax. This has been regarded as evidence not just of stupidity but of the even greater sin of arrogance. Some critics have even drawn parallels between McCandless and the Arctic’s most infamous tragic figure, Sir John Franklin, a 19th Century British naval officer whose smugness and hauteur contributed to some 140 deaths, including his own.”
This story is one of a terribly tragic loss of life; one which was totally unnecessary. McCandless could have brought much more to the world upon return from a successful trip into the wild, equipped with what he needed for survival. His short-sightedness about being able to beat the odds led to a painful death of starvation amongst the elements. Many have attempted to climb great mountains, accomplish great feats in nature, but they are typically outfitted with the right provisions. His passions blinded him to reality. Chris’ mother indicated that as a teenager, he was a “teenage Tolstoyan, believed that wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil-which was ironic because Chris was a natural-born capitalist with an uncanny knack for making a buck.” She further adds that “Chris was always an entrepreneur.” This dichotomy of a man was demonstrated throughout the book when he took work when he needed money and at other times burned it or left it behind. He obviously held ideals, but did know that man could not live off the earth alone. Material possessions and money are necessities in today’s day and age. Why he didn’t better prepare for Alaska, I don’t think that I’ll ever understand nor admire. You see, I hold human life in the highest regard. It’s a gift from God and each day that we are able to continue living, learning and loving on this planet is a day which is a precious opportunity. In my opinion, Chris McCandless wasted his gift and devastated his friends and family.
This book is not one that I would have picked up from a shelf and chosen on my own. Yet, I did enjoy the read. The debates which encircled my family between the twins and I regarding Chris McCandless made for interesting discussion. Ultimately, you leave reading this book feeling strongly either one way or another regarding Chris’ decision. Unlike my daughters, I believe he made the wrong choice.
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