My rating: 4 stars
In April 1992 Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family from Washington, DC., hitchhiked to Alaska and walked into the wilderness north of Mount McKinley to try to live off the land and his own wits. In September that year, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. A fan of Jack London, John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, McCandless had donated his life savings to charity, abandoned his worldly possessions and invented a completely new life for himself under the moniker Alexander Supertramp. Composed of extracts from McCandless’s diaries and passages highlighted in books found by his body, alongside interviews with people who had known him and Krakauer’s own conjectures, Into the Wild explores what led McCandless to undertake his Alaskan odyssey and what ultimately caused his death.
I first heard of Chris McCandless when I saw Sean Penn’s film adaptation of the book back in 2008. It struck me profoundly, perhaps because at that point I was much the same age as McCandless was when he died, and has stayed with me in the intervening years. I decided to read Into the Wild as a slightly older adult to see whether the impact the film had on me was simply due to my impressionability at that point or whether there was something more to it.
This is not a very long book and it does not deal solely with the case of Chris McCandless. Instead, Krakauer takes his story as a central point from which to consider the idea of shaking off the trappings of society in order to live alone in the wild. To do this he examines several similar cases, one of which is the story of Everett Ruess. In 1934, Ruess was travelling alone through the Utah desert and simply disappeared. The parallels between his case and that of McCandless are striking – both were young men in their early twenties who wished to disengage from society and live closer to nature. There are doubtless many other similar cases.
McCandless is a polarising figure. There are some who believe that he was a suicidal idiot, whereas others think that he was a victim of circumstance and never intended to die alone in Alaska. For the moment I reserve judgement, however I believe that this will be a book I return to as I get older and that my opinion on the matter will doubtless change.
Verdict: Whatever your opinions of Chris McCandless may be, Krakauer has made a concerted and commendable attempt to understand what drives some people to seek out a life of solitude and commune with the land.