Plot: Young Christopher McCandless had just graduated from Emory University when he got rid of the few personal items he had accrued, gave away tens of thousands of dollars to Oxfam International, and took off in his car. He did not tell his upper-middle-class family in Annandale, Virginia, that he was taking off. For two years, McCandless took to the road, seeking for, it seems, a life of philosophical introspection, communing with nature, and the soul-cleansing experience of pushing a body and mind out of civilization and to the very brink of its resources. He ventured west, north and south, making his way to Arizona, California, Mexico, North Dakota, and Alaska, driving, then hitchhiking, and living on rice, wild berries and the kindness of strangers. McCandless’ conjured up a dream of an “Alaskan Odyssey” and he heads out alone to the Alaskan bush, where he eventually starved to death in an abandoned bus in the wilderness, which turned out to be not as remote as he had hoped but it was remote enough that he couldn’t get help when he needed it.
Critical Evaluation: The book is a biography of McCandless’ life but it also examines the spiritual and psychological need for some men to journey into the often dangerous wilderness. At heart a mystery about what happened to a recent college graduate when he broke with his family and abandoned conventional civilization, it also goes beyond this to fully capture the psychic wounds and the spirit of adventure that pushes boys and men to forge into some of the most remote areas. He looks at historical figures who have gone off the deep end on wilderness quests. Writer Krakauer is an adventurer and risk-taker who had done his share of travelling into the wilderness in what some might call dangerous or foolhardy ways himself. There is a “There by the grace of God…” quality to the writing and a deep sympathy for McCandless. Krakauer compares McCandless to some famous wilderness worshipers and compares his journey to a religious pilgrimage. It is a heady travelogue, gripping psychological investigation, and a through study of the spirit of adventure that can uplift and inspire as much as it can hurt and destroy.
Reader’s Annotation: When a young man ventures into the wilderness and dies, a risk-taking writer tries to understand what made him – and so many others in American history – take incredible risks for a taste of freedom.
Author bio: A lifelong adventurer and mountain climber, Jon Krakauer was covering an expedition for Outside Magazine when his expedition fell into tragedy. His documentation of what happened during that fatal trek became “Into Thin Air,” his acclaimed book that explored the combination of mistakes and fatal bad luck during those days.
A native of Brookline, MA, and Corvallis, OR, and graduate of Hampshire College, Krakauer has lived in Washington and Colorado. His books tend to explore the place where man’s love of the wilderness turns to hubris.
Genre: Non-fiction, adventure
Curriculum Ties: Many of McCandless’ issues are anti-Capitalist and his philosophy was affected by a utopian, back-to-the-land pre-Communism that was rampant in Russia before the revolution. One could link the book to Capitalism and early dissatisfaction with social changes caused by the Industrial Revolution.
California State Standards: World History – The Modern World
2. Examine how scientific and technological changes and new forms of energy brought about massive social, economic, and cultural change (e.g., the inventions and discov eries of James Watt, Eli Whitney, Henry Bessemer, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison).
3. Describe the growth of population, rural to urban migration, and growth of cities associated with the Industrial Revolution.
6. Analyze the emergence of capitalism as a dominant economic pattern and the responses to it, including Utopianism, Social Democracy, Socialism, and Communism.
Booktalking Ideas: 1) Focus on a young son’s rejection of his family background, what they stand for…
2) Ask the questions of the book – treat the book like the mystery that it is and get the audience involved in asking some questions.
3) Talk about nature – what nature does for us and how little interaction that we have with it in modern urban/suburban life.
4) Focus on the desire to break free, gain independence.
5) Talk about explorers and risk takers. Bring up a couple of amazing feats. Discuss why anyone would ever want to take such risks.
Reading Level: Eighth grade
Interest Level: Ninth grade and up
Challenge Issues: Some may say that the book glorifies reckless, thoughtless behavior.
Challenge Responses: 1) Be familiar with many positive reviews in notable papers, such as the New York Times. 2) Have the collection development policy handy.
Talk about the cultural significance of the book, with backing: http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/18/reviews/krakauer-wild.html
Why Included: The movie and the book got very good reviews, drew attention to a story that was shocking and widespread. The book is very highly regarded by the Los Angeles Times YA book critic.