Nearly 20 years ago, Jon Krakauer’s stunning book into the wild moved many readers to embrace the fatally flawed romantic adventure of Chris McCandless, a college grad who cut ties with his affluent family and abandoned worldly possessions to wander across the country. In search of solitude and peace of mind, the 24-year-old ventured into the Alaskan wilderness where, alone, desperate and sick from eating toxic roots, he starved to death.
In 2007, a film adaptation of the book, directed by Sean Penn, further aggrandized the Thoreau-like mystique surrounding this free-spirited idealist. But neither Krakauer’s best seller nor Penn’s acclaimed movie directly answered haunting questions about this ill-fated odyssey. What did Chris McCandless really leave behind? And why?
In her new memory, The Wild Truth, Chris’s younger sister Carine McCandless promises to answer these questions. “People think they understand our story because they know how it ended, but they do not know how it all began,” she writes, describing her disturbing visit to the house in Annandale, Va., where she and Chris grew up.
The grim reality Carine reveals is that their father, Walt McCandless, was a volatile psychopath who abused his kids physically and psychologically. Their mother of him, Billie, was his main victim of him, but also a pathetic enabler and an abuser. To make matters worse, Walt, a successful aerospace engineer, led two lives—fathering two separate households of children almost simultaneously.
While Carine told Krakauer all of this as he researched into the wild, and showed him rants Chris wrote her from college (vowing to “divorce” his parents), she made Krakauer promise he wouldn’t disclose the nightmare. She held out hope Walt and Billie would change. That she’s spilling the story now probably tells you how that went.
Much of the book’s first 50 riveting pages paint an appalling picture of the dysfunctional McCandless family before Chris escaped to college. Troubling scenes of sadistic abuse, of brutal fights and drunken rages, and belt whippings and beatings, will repeatedly send readers to the book’s front cover to stare again at the sad photo of little Chris and Carine in their Sunday best. Walt told them to smile so Carine did. Chris, looking so much older than his age, would not smile.
The problem for readers is that clues to Chris’s motives and demise come fast and furious up front in the book. Except for a few insights at the end, the rest of The Wild Truth is Carine’s story. It is a candid, deeply personal account of her life de ella after Chris’s death (she was then 21) detailing her struggles de ella to find the love and the family life she never really had.
Carine’s story encompasses years of searching for the missing pieces of Chris’s life. But it is also about shaping an extended family with her half-siblings, grappling with her parents’ continuing betrayals of her, learning from her three failed marriages, finding success as a small business owner, and discovering unconditional love as a mother. It’s about Carine finding ways to rise above her troubled childhood and survive.
But Carine’s story isn’t nearly as compelling as her brother’s. And Carine is not nearly the captivating writer Jon Krakauer (who wrote the foreword to her book de ella) is. Her narrative of her, beyond the first quarter, grows increasingly self-absorbed, mundane and draining.
Undoubtedly, this book was difficult for Carine to write. Unfortunately, it’s also difficult to read.
The Wild Truth
By Carine McCandless
Harper One, 304pp.
2 out of 4 stars