Chris McCandless was a 24-year-old college grad from an affluent family when he cut ties with everyone he knew and spent two years roaming the country. He gave away his trust fund, burned the rest of his cash, and lived as a self-described tramp before trekking into the wilderness of Alaska. About 100 days later, in the fall of 1992, he was found starved to death in an abandoned bus.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, is the fascinating story of Chris’ fatal quest to find the simple beauty in life. As he did with his nonfiction books Into Thin Air (about climbing and dying on Mount Everest) and Under the Banner of Heaven (about the deadly extremes of Mormon fundamentalism), the author crafts a factual, yet engaging, narrative. His work often reads more like a story than a nonfiction book. For Into the Wild, Krakauer dove into research and tracked down sources across the country to create a multi-layered portrait of his subject. He brought in historical context of other people who have communed with or disappeared in nature while trying to “find themselves.” He also described his own experiences as an outdoor adventurer to try to understand why Chris would abandon his family and a potentially secure future. He explored whether Chris was an arrogant idiot who was unprepared for the wilderness, a noble soul looking for a pure life, or a troubled escapee running from a dysfunctional family.
When I first finished the book, published in 1996, I wasn’t sure which I thought Chris was. Krakauer hinted at some troubles in Chris’ childhood, the worst being the two wives and families that his father kept simultaneously, and his parents’ obsession with materialism. But I wasn’t sure that was reason enough to justify the break that Chris made from his family and friends. I wasn’t sure until I read The Wild Truth, the 2014 book written by Chris’ sister, which gives more insight into their terrible childhood. Now I have a better understanding of what Chris was trying to leave behind.
In The Wild Truth, Carine McCandless describes the physical and emotional abuse that she and her older brother, Chris, endured growing up: the brutal fights, the endless manipulations, parents who seemed to care more about appearances than reality, confusion over their father’s two families. In some ways, this memoir of survival and recovery reminded me of A Child Called It or The Glass Castle. Writing it helped Carine deal with a lot of her own issues and also explained in more detail why her brother took off. It was his journey of healing, a way to shake off the scars of his upbringing and find peace and truth.
What I found most fascinating about Carine’s book, however, was the glimpse that it gave us into how journalists tell stories. Krakauer wrote Into the Wild twenty years earlier with a lot of help from Carine. But though she shared her family’s dark secrets with Jon at that time, she asked him not to put them in his book. She said she was trying to protect her parents in the hope of salvaging their relationship. Perhaps it is the former journalist in me, but the whole time I read Carine’s book, I wondered how Jon could write nonfiction about Chris but not include it. I understand he was respecting a source’s wishes, and that happens a lot. But what a challenge he must have faced, only being able to hint at the troubled family life that likely drove Chris on his journey. Ethically, did Krakauer do the right thing? I’m not sure. Carine said she wrote this book to set the record straight – many people thought Chris an arrogant fool for dying in the wild. This book did that for me, but also left me wanting a memoir from Krakauer about his life as an adventurer and writer.