Book Review: Wild

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Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Author: Cheryl Strayed

Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography

Rating: 5 Stars

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Description/Synopsis:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.

Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

WARNING – SPOILERS MAY ENSUE BEYOND THIS POINT – REVIEW BELOW

What an amazing, wonderful, and strange journey I have just been on. Wild by Cheryl Strayed isn’t a book I’d normally pick up. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire biography in my life—on anyone. Ever. So why did I pick up this book? I happened upon a trailer for the movie, and I thought “I need to see that.”… and I did. Immediately before I read the book, I watched the movie—and I’m glad that I did for a lot of reasons.

Wild is the true story and memoir of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who, when she was 22, went on a self-discovery hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in order to find herself. She walked over 1,100 miles (give or take a few) from the Mojave Desert all the way up to the border of Washington and the Bridge of the Gods. The reason this story intrigued me is that it sounds like something I’ve always wanted to do. I grew up in Oregon, hiking, camping, hunting, and enjoying the outdoors. I’ve been to a lot of the same places that Cheryl went on her journey—and I was intrigued to find out what she may have learned along the way. Like Cheryl, I too lost my mother to cancer at a young age (though I was just a teen), and I couldn’t help but identify with some of the commonalities between our lives as I read through her journey.

It’s difficult for me to quantify this story in the way that I normally would in a review. Normally I’d pick apart the language, sentence structure, characters, and world building. I can’t do that here. Cheryl Strayed is a real person, and the events of the story really happened. It would be insulting to try and quantify this story on any sort of literary level. So instead, I’ll say this: Thank you.

This book took me two days to read—which is longer than most books take me. The story delved into aspects of life that I try to avoid in fictional stories… drugs, promiscuity, death, abandonment… but I’m infinitesimally grateful that I read this story. When the last page was finished and Cheryl’s hike came to a close, I felt like I too had been on an amazing journey. Wild made me think. It made me consider the importance of life and the people in it—of who all of us are once we strip away the needless things of our daily lives.

There were some differences between the movie and the book. I felt a lot of the original printed story was cut out for the movie, and some details were definitely altered and re-arranged for the cinematic screen, but deep down, the story at its core was the same. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would have felt about the movie or the book had I not seen/read both. The movie wasn’t particularly engaging, and neither was the book… but I couldn’t help but be drawn into the story anyhow. Watching the movie ahead of time made it easy for me to visualize the landscapes, people, and events that occurred in the book, and I think because of that, it made the book easier to read in a way.

Overall, I loved the book. It’s a weird thing to say because the book failed at every turn if I were to compare it to the fiction I normally read. The writing wasn’t particularly engaging or fluid. The main character wasn’t particularly sassy or endearing, and the plot? What plot? This was a true story—it didn’t need a plot. I can’t rate this book on the same scale I’d normally use to decide if a book was “good”—but oh, how it was. When the story was over I was left with a feeling of wonder and joy. I am so very glad that I read it.

A Character Portrait: Safiya

A Character Portrait: A brief peek into the lives of the characters of my fantasy novel, “Khet”, and what makes my characters tick.


Safiya

It may seem a bit counter productive to first do a character portrait article of my main male lead, Leander, and then move on to a relatively minor character, Safiya, but Safiya’s story is one that needs to be told.

When “Khet” is finished and published and posted all over the internet, I have no doubt in my mind that Safiya will be one of the most hated characters in my series. After all, she’s the first villain Khet encounters in my novel.

Safiya is one of Khet’s older sisters—in fact, she’s the closest in age to Khet—a mere 5 years older. It may seem odd that Khet’s older sister is a Villain in my story… until one takes a closer look at Safiya’s life. More than anything, Safiya is a tragic character. She was only five when she witnessed the birth of her younger sister, Khet—only five when she learned that Khet wasn’t like the rest of her family… only five when she witnessed her mother’s betrayal. Unlike so many of Khet’s rather large family, Safiya was present when her mother betrayed their father with a Felnatherin lord—and from that moment forward she both hated her mother, and more so, Khet.

From the moment Khet is born, their lives become a waiting game—waiting to be found out and killed by the Felnatherin who actively hunt down half-breeds. Safiya and her siblings are forced to lie to everyone they know and pretend that Khet is blind so that she will never have to reveal her eye color. Because of her false handicap, Safiya spends her early life babysitting Khet, keeping her out of trouble, leading her around, doing chores for her, and all the while keeping her secret. Most of these are minor irritations to Safiya. The real kicker comes when Safiya is 16 and finally old enough to pass through the village’s maturation ritual.

For one day, the young men and women of the villages surrounding the valley come together to become adults in the eyes of their people. They test their bravery, strength, and agility… and at the end of the ceremony, they pair off with the boy or girl they have chosen to bind themselves to for life. Unfortunately, not all goes as planned for Safiya.

At the end of her first ceremony, she is rejected. In the eyes of the valley people, her family is tainted. Already two members have been blind (Khet and her half-breed grandmother Sana), and so Safiya is passed over. For another five years, she is considered a child, and in those five years, Safiya’s resentment of her younger sister festers.

The tragedy of Safiya is that all she’s ever wanted in life was to start a family of her own. She loves children. For five years, she bides her time, and when Khet finally turns 16, she gets her last shot. Her people are only allowed to go through the maturation ceremony twice… if she hasn’t gained a husband by the end of it, then she never will. She will ultimately remain a child in the eyes of her people for the rest of her life. Unfortunately for Safiya, the life she wants just isn’t to be.

During the second ceremony, Safiya is chosen for a bride—the crowning moment for the hopeful girl. For a few short moments, she is relieved and ecstatic. She’ll finally be able to leave her family, and Khet behind—but her joy doesn’t last long.

Khet is discovered by Leander, and it comes to light that Khet’s family have been harboring a half-breed Felnatherin. Safiya’s hope and life are stripped away. Her family are destined to become attendants to Leander and will never be permitted to marry or have children—a ruling put in place to prevent further half-breeds from being born. Safiya is understandably, devastated. One moment she is set to become married and start her new life, the next, she becomes a slave to a Felnatherin lord, and her sister, Khet, is promoted to pretending to be a Felnatherin lady. Safiya, as you can imagine, is livid.

From this point on, Safiya’s life becomes one tainted with tragedy, madness, and murder. Unable to deal with the hand she’s been dealt in life, Safiya drowns her youngest sibling and attempts to do the same to another. In her mind, ending the children’s lives will save them from the tragedy of living a life like hers. She believes that she is being kind, rescuing them from a life spent in servitude. That isn’t how everyone sees it.

As punishment, Safiya’s face is mutilated, she is imprisoned, and she is kept captive for the remainder of her life. Every second she spends from that night forward she spends devising ways to make Khet’s life a living hell.

From the reader’s, and most of the character’s POVs, Safiya is a villain. She’s the selfish, mad sister who tries to murder her own family, and hates Khet for no reason other than she was born… but that isn’t how she appears to Khet, and that isn’t how she appears to me either. Like Khet, I see Safiya for what she is: a tragedy.

Khet is well aware that her existence has robbed Safiya of the life she’s always wanted. Like no other character in the book, Khet sympathizes with her older sister… to a point. Everything Safiya wants in life is taken away by her younger sister and the betrayal of their family perpetrated by their mother. Her life is a never-ending chain of misfortune and there comes a point when Safiya simply can no longer tolerate her own pain.

On the night that Safiya attempts to murder her younger siblings, Khet looks in Leander’s eyes and pleads for Safiya’s life to be spared. It may be one of the most telling moments of Safiya’s short life. As much as Safiya hates Khet, Khet in turn loves her. Khet is the only character in the book who truly sees Safiya for who she is and accepts her despite her flaws.

I can’t hate Safiya. Despite being cast as a villain in my story, she’s one of my favorite characters. I know readers are going to loathe her—I set it up that way… but I can’t help but hold a soft spot in my heart for this tragic character. Most readers will miss the parts of Safiya that make her such an exceptional character. Because Khet’s story is told from various POV’s, most of which hate Safiya, the reader’s view of her will be tainted in a way that can’t be avoided, and perhaps, that is the larger tragedy… for even outside of her fictional universe, Safiya will forever stand in the shadow of her younger sister.

Other Tidbits

Safiya’s name is Arabic and means “Pure”–which is strangely fitting considering in my novel, Safiya is the one character who strongly wants to get married and have children, and is unable to. She remains a virgin throughout her life and had Khet never been born, would have been an outstanding person overall. She has a big heart and a genuine love of children. Sadly, this version of Safiya doesn’t last.

During the course of “Khet”, we see Safiya grow up between the ages of 5 to 21 in the first book of the series. She is 1/8th Felnatherin.