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John Krakauer's story about Christopher McCandless, the young college graduate who forsook a promising future as a professional, probably lawyer, for the individualism and commitment to nature embodied in his subsequent life and early death, Into the Wild, depicts an uncomfortable relationship between parents and son. Early in this sorrowful depiction of McCandless' death from starvation -- or, possibly, from toxins ingested from some of the plants he consumed -- Krakauer describes a relationship between youth and parents that clearly presages a break on the part of the former with the expectations of the latter. As Krakauer quotes McCandless' father, Walt, an aerospace engineer, responding to Christopher's decision to forgo law school while donating his college fund to charity, “'We misread him,' his father admits." Chris was raised along with his siblings in a rather conventional setting in northern Virginia, his father employed by NASA and by prominent aerospace companies that support federal agencies until establishing his own consulting firm. Walt and Billie, Chris' mother, had little inkling that their son aspired to a future radically different from what they envisioned. In a telling passage, Krakauer describes the schism between parents and child when Chris unexpectedly gives his mother a box of candy for Mother's Day:
"It was the first present she had received from her son in more than two years, since he had announced to his parents that, on principle, he would no longer give or accept gifts. Indeed, Chris had only recently upbraided Walt and Billie for expressing their desire to buy him a new car as a graduation present and offering to pay for law school if there wasn’t enough money left in his college fund to cover it."
Chris' decision to head for Alaska to live off-the-land and commune with nature represented an enormous departure from the existence his family had known in northern Virginia, close to the nation's capitol. That his parents weren't emotionally prepared for such a decision spoke to the depth of differences that separated them.
Obviously, Chris McCandless' relationship with his parents is problematic and complicated. His relationship with his father, Walt, in particular is extremely strained. From the beginning of the book, Krakauer places quite a bit of emphasis on that relationship as the primary reason, or a primary reason anyway, for why Chris was motivated to "drop out" of society. They are both strong willed characters, and Chris obviously felt wronged and betrayed when he leanred the true reason why his father and mother's marriage ended.
While his relationship with his mother is better, and we get the sense that Chris felt sorry for her on some level, he can't seem to forgive her, and along with his sense of wanderlust and adventure, along with his transcendentalist idealism, this drives him west and north, as far from that betrayal as possible.
What complicates the story further is that, while the relationship between Walt and Chris was mostly destroyed, Walt obviously loved his son, and said so openly. That's part of what makes this such a tragedy.
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