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Jon Krakauer – Into the Wild

September 8, 2008

110. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Length: 207 pages

Genre: Non-fiction

Started: 07 September 2008
Finished: 08 September 2008

Summary: In April 1992, Christopher McCandless set off into the Alaskan bush with little more than ten pounds of rice, a small-bore rifle, boots that were two sizes too large, and an outsized sense of adventure and idealism regarding living off the land. Four months later, his body was found by moose hunters in an abandoned bus that had been his camp.

Horseback riding near the Stampede Trail

Horseback riding near the Stampede Trail

In Into the Wild, Krakauer expands on a magazine article he wrote about McCandless’s death, looking at his family life, his wanderings in the years prior to his Alaska trip, the lives and deaths of other similar wilderness adventurers, and the aftermath of the discovery of his body. Krakauer also provides an extended meditation on what inner forces pushed McCandless along his path, drawing heavily both on the scraps of writing that McCandless left behind, as well as on what Krakauer perceives as a sympathetic streak in his own nature that fueled his own youthful adventuring.

Review: McCandless has been a controversial figure ever since his death, with legions of people emerging from the woodwork to either praise his ideas and him for having the courage to live them, or to condemn him as a moony-eyed idiot nutjob who got himself killed out of sheer stupidity. Krakauer is not shy about taking sides in the debate:

“McCandless didn’t conform particularly well to the bush-casualty stereotype. Although he was rash, untutored in the ways of the backcountry, and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn’t incompetent – he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else – although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.” (p. 85)

However, as eloquently and as passionately as Krakauer presents his case, I was never fully convinced. It’s clear that Krakauer identifies with McCandless quite strongly, as is evinced by the several chapters spent detailing Krakauer’s own near-death wilderness experience. His pleading for McCandless’s case therefore struck somewhat of a strange note with me… it felt as though convincing his readers that McCandless wasn’t crazy was actually more of a self-exculpation for Krakauer, and it conspicuously lacks the journalist impartiality that the writing style should carry.

Teklanika River in Denali National Park, about 15 miles from McCandless's bus.

Teklanika River in Denali National Park, about 15 miles from McCandless's bus.

But what about me? Did I come away from this book thinking that McCandless was crazy? Well, yes and no. I don’t think he was a complete nutjob, nor do I believe he was suicidal (the fact that he let himself suffer through starving to death rather than ending his life with his rifle speaks to that, I think). But, after reading this book, I do get the feeling that there was something not quite right about him, either. Not crazy, but not healthy and well-adjusted, either. I’m not going to play armchair psychiatrist, and I will readily admit that many of the motives that drove McCandless into the bush are familiar ones. The difference is that he acted on them, where as most of us remained hemmed in by society and cultural strictures.

Overall, the book itself is a quick if somewhat disturbing read. I was most bothered by Krakauer’s obvious bias, but at least he’s up-front about it from the get-go. He also tended to repeat material to some extent – I think the text of McCandless’s final postcard was repeated at least four times throughout the course of the book. But, it’s obviously well-researched and passionately told – the interviews with McCandless’s family and friends were extremely affecting, and the small details of his life and his death are haunting. I wish I’d read it last year – I was on vacation in Alaska, and was horseback riding probably no more than seven miles from McCandless’s camp. You can see a photo set of his bus (which is still there) here on Flickr (not my photos); the last shot is one of his self-portraits, and when I realized he was wearing the too-large brown boots described in the book, given to him by the last person to see him alive, I almost lost it. I can already tell that it’s small details like that which are going to make this book one that stays with me. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: An fascinating, haunting piece of journalistic non-fiction. Not exactly enjoyable, but definitely worth reading.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Yikes, I had a lot to say about that one considering it was only 200 pages! Let’s turn to some…

Other Reviews: Life and Times of a “New” New Yorker, A Life in Books

First Line: Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn.


  • p. 11: “Thompson, Samel, and Swanson, hwever, are contumacious Alaskans with a special fondness for driving motor vehicles where motor vehicles aren’t really designed to be driven.” – stubbornly perverse or rebellious; willfully and obstinately disobedient.
  • p. 61: “The big John Deere 8020 squats silently in the canted evening light, a long way from anywhere, surrounded by a half-mowed field of South Dakota milo.” – a grain sorghum having white, yellow, or pinkish seeds, grown chiefly in Africa, Asia, and the U.S.
  • p. 62: “The combine has broken down for the third time in as many days, and Westerberg is frantically trying to replace a hard-to-reach bushing before nightfall.” – a replaceable thin tube or sleeve, usually of bronze, mounted in a case or housing as a bearing.
  • p. 72: “In mid-winter a field biologist discovered all his belongings – two rifles, camping gear, a diary filled with incoherent ranting about truth and beauty and recondite ecological theory – in an empty cabin near Tofty, its interior filled with drifted snow.” – beyond ordinary knowledge or understanding; esoteric:
  • p. 73: “Writing about this death, Edward Hoagland observed that Alaska is “not the best site in the world for eremitic experiments or peace-loving theatrics.”” – characterizing a hermit or recluse, esp. one under a religious vow.
  • p. 139: “The icefall was crisscrossed with crevasses and tottering seracs.” – a large irregularity of glacial ice, as a pinnacle found in glacial crevasses and formed by melting or movement of the ice.
  • p. 142: “The depth of the snow made the going slow and exhausting; by the time I front-pointed up the overhanging wass of the uppermost bergschrund, some three or four hours after leaving camp, I was thrashed.” – a crevasse, or series of crevasses, at the upper end of a mountain glacier.
  • p. 142: “Beneath my Vibram soles the wall fell away for three thousand feet to the dirty, avalanche-scarred cirque of the Witches Cauldron Glacier.” – a bowl-shaped, steep-walled mountain basin carved by glaciation, often containing a small, round lake.
  • p. 153: “Barely breathing now, I moved my feet up, scrabbling my crampon points across the verglas.” – a thin coating of ice, as on rock.
  • p. 180: “Franklin was himself within a day or two of expiring when he and the other survivors were rescued by a band of métis.” – the offspring of an American Indian and a white person, esp. one of French ancestry.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2008 11:23 am

    Great review! This was a tough read, huh? Thanks for linking me. How did you like your trip to Alaska? I lived in Fairbanks when I was in high school and often went to Healy for basketball games. I love your photos!

  2. September 9, 2008 1:32 pm

    Amanda – Thanks! I enjoyed your review as well. I was a little amazed at how much this book really made me think, despite its very small size… although it’s not even so much the book as what I’ve read about people’s reactions to the book (and now movie).

    I loved Alaska! It was my first trip to the state. We spent half of our time on a small-boat cruise out of Juneau around the Inside Passage, and half of the time in and around Denali NP (staying in Healy). It was gorgeous, and I burned through a lot of camera memory cards! It also gave me a much clearer picture in my head while reading this book – I flipped open the book to the first map and got a bit of a jolt… I’d had no idea that we were that close. I don’t think I’d necessarily have wanted to hike out to the bus had I known about it (the whole idea of treating it as a pilgrimage location seems a little misguided and slightly morbid, personally), but it really brought the story home for me, having visited the area.

  3. September 11, 2008 6:26 pm

    After visiting Alaska last September I’ve wondered about this book, but I might have to put it on hold for a little bit longer. And sheesh those are some vocab words!!

  4. September 12, 2008 5:06 pm

    I had a similar experience to you when reading Into the Wild. I admired McCandless’s desire to be free, but my admiration was diminished by the baffling choices he made. To me, it seemed as if he practically set himself up to fail, or maybe he just held the romantic-but-misguided notion that nature is here to be our gentle friend.

  5. bj kowal permalink
    August 25, 2011 2:53 pm

    Has anyone thought about Schizophrenia?


  1. Into the Wild - movie vs. book « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

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