This story overflows with vivid descriptions of the country McCandless traversed, and a reader can easily trace his peregrinations by pencil on an atlas of the continental United States, although some smaller or more obscure place names may prove elusive and tricky. This account also travels back and forth through time as Krakauer includes sharp descriptions of the forbidding Alaskan terrain that McCandless battled in his doomed bid to survive and the ice-locked mountainside that nearly claimed Krakauer himself as a young man. These Alaskan depictions are especially graphic, striking, and thrilling—probably because this land and the bus that became his home on the Stampede Trail constitute the cold and mysterious heart of Krakauer's haunting narrative.
Descriptions of Chris's middle-class upbringing are full of references to a bustling blended family and the kind of high school and university activities that many young people will find comfortably familiar. He was always a precocious little boy with a gift for making money, competing athletically, and excelling at just about anything he attempted. His parents had come from humble backgrounds and grew affluent as they raised their family in a comfortable Virginia suburb. This picture of middle-class comfort contrasts sharply with one story about a teenaged Chris dragging a friend into a destitute Washington, D.C. neighborhood, armed with good intentions and a bag of hamburgers for the homeless. More starkly different yet are the descriptions of his largely bohemian lifestyle on the road.
His ill-fated journey began in the Mojave desert where,...
(The entire section is 664 words.)
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Documentary biographical writing is not celebrated for its prime literariness. Into the Wild, however, features many of the narrative qualities that mark the best novels. Krakauer's deft interweaving of diverse personalities and locations lend his work a crisp credibility and resonance, while enabling the author to shape a sustained drama from the facts and figures that comprise the documentary materials at hand. His generous and candid descriptions of his varied interviewees eschew cliches and add color and texture to this book.
Krakauer has made Into the Wild a much more complicated book by including many intertexts in the form of thoughtfully placed epigraphs and excerpts from the books that influenced Chris, as well as some anecdotal stories about other young adventurers whose attraction to nature also proved fatal. Krakauer even relates a hairraising tale from his own youth that resonates with the same idealism and stubborn adventurousness that characterized McCandless. This multifaceted story is part biography, part documentary, part autobiography, and part contemplation of human nature.
Krakauer records the minutiae of local scenes by successfully combining his knowledge of the outdoors with the devoted attention of an experienced journalist and professional nonfiction writer. Descriptions of Alaska and other places are both informationally dense and excitingly written. Krakauer's readers acquire a valuable...
(The entire section is 370 words.)
A number of very unconventional people are portrayed in Into the Wild, and author Krakauer presents them with great respect and sympathy. He describes an assortment of transients like the "rubber tramps" who live out of their cars while eking out a living hawking wares at flea markets and swap meets. McCandless was a "leather tramp" himself because he had given up his car and relied on his shoe leather to get him around. It turns out that there are few common denominators among people who elect to live a vagabond existence; they may be highly educated, disenchanted with the idea of putting down roots somewhere, and disgusted with the thought of trudging through a nine-to-five existence, or they may be down on their luck and homeless. McCandless met, and Krakauer interviewed, all types, from free spirits Jan Burres and her boyfriend, to Charlie, a mildly eccentric old man who took pity on Chris and allowed him to "squat" in a trailer. There are many people for whom a comfortable, stable lifestyle holds little interest or merit, and Krakauer's insightful descriptions humanize the strangers that pass us on the highway. In much the same way, Krakauer renders the lives of the most ordinary people—the ones we meet briefly in nondescript small towns or on the road, like Wayne Westerberg or Jim Gallien—visible in a manner that makes them extraordinary, familiar, and comforting. It becomes clear that people who live on the road or hold down unglamorous jobs are...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. Why did McCandless reject his parents' lifestyle?
2. What do you think of McCandless's decision to discard his identity and past life without a backward look? Would you do the same thing if you were in his place, or do you think it would be important to discuss your decision with your family first, even if you were certain that they would try to dissuade you?
3. Pretend that you could speak for McCandless. What would you have to say to Krakauer, his biographer. To his parents?
4. What do you think you would want to say to McCandless if you were his father? If you were his mother?
5. The author believes that McCandless was deeply embittered by his discoveries about his father's past. How do you think he should have handled his discovery?
6. Do you think that Krakauer's empathy for McCandless may have influenced his critical judgement in examining Chris' actions and decisions? Do you think the sympathetic way that Krakauer tells the story may influence your own opinion of McCandless?
7. Krakauer insists that he "won't claim to be an impartial biographer." What kind of book do you think an "impartial biographer" might write? How do you think such a biography would be different than the book Krakauer has written? Would it be better, worse, or just too different to properly judge? What conditions would a biography have to meet in order for its author to be able to claim impartiality? Do you think...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. According to Jon Krakauer, Chris McCandless died as a result of "one or two seemingly insignificant blunders." What were those blunders and how could Chris have avoided them? Discuss the kinds of preparations that someone planning to live in the bush should take before setting out.
2. Who are "Rubber Tramps" and "Leather Tramps"? Describe their way of life. Discuss the pros and cons of a vagabond lifestyle.
3. Consider the various accounts of experiments similar to McCandless's that Krakauer relates. Discuss the kinds of idealism or alienation that lead these young people to abandon past lives and lead potentially dangerous existence.
4. Choose someone who has attempted to live in the wild the way McCandless did and research that person's experiences. Write a short biography about their adventures and the lessons they may have learned.
5. Krakauer seems unwilling to judge either McCandless or any of the people who were involved in his life. Many people have either praised or condemned McCandless for his foolhardiness or Krakauer for his sympathetic approach to telling this story without making judgements. How would you defend or criticize the author's refusal to claim a position?
6. There are instances in this book where Krakauer introduces autobiographical material and suggests that his own experiences influence his perspective. Discuss an episode from your own life where your feelings about past...
(The entire section is 354 words.)
For Further Reference
"Jon Krakauer." In Contemporary Authors. Volume 153. Eds. Terrie M. Rooney and Jennifer Gariepy. New York: Gale, 1997, p. 195. Provides a brief introduction to Krakauer as a journalist and writer, including brief but useful overviews of Eiger Dreams and Into the Wild.
Krakauer, Jon. "Death of an Innocent." Outside 28,1 (January 1993): 38. Krakauer's award-winning article was written shortly after the discovery of McCandless's death and formed the basis of Into the Wild.
——. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster. New York: Villard, 1997. Krakauer's account of the catastrophic 1996 Everest ascent is filled with anecdotal material about his...
(The entire section is 226 words.)