Into The Great Wide Open: Two Book Reviews

On the face of it– or if you were to judge two books by their covers, if you will– my  two most recent reads have nothing in common.  Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before has an  appropriately blue cover graced by a small globe wearing a ship at a jaunty angle like a sailor’s cap. It captures what his subject, the enigmatic Captain James Cook, would have seen each day at sea, the endless blues of the ocean and sky with nothing but clouds to break the monotony.  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, on the other hand, features a well worn hiking boot.  The boot represents the journey: the leather worn and broken-in, the laces broken, the base of the sole encrusted in dirt.  The boot was where Captain Cook often was not: terra firma.  Cook sailed the seas far, far from home in the 18th century; Strayed, a woman with no home, hiked the Sierra Nevada and Cascades in 1995.  But if we crack open the spines and delve into the stories, we see that they have much more in common than at first glance.

Captain Cook did not leave much beyond his ship’s journals to posterity that explain why a successful man who pulled himself out of abject poverty and broken through England’s rigid class system would leave not once, not twice, but three times on perilous journeys into the Arctic and Pacific that lasted three years or more.  He left behind a stable home, a lucrative position, and his wife and kids to fulfill Homeric quests; his first solidified his place in history, so why did he keep going?  Tony Horwitz, a writer who combines humor, travelogue, and history into one, takes up the challenge to climb into Cook’s skin to learn what kind of man he was, what drove him, and why he continued to set sail.  The best way to learn about a man is to walk in his shoes, so Horwitz follows Cook’s routes around the world, including back to York, England, Cook’s home, to discover what Cook might have seen, his legacy, and how he is remembered today.

Cook’s history and legacy, as Horwitz learns, is messy.  While Cook could have easily earned an A+ in the 18th century explorer grade book, for he didn’t try to convert, take over, or kill the native people he met, nor was he an unjust captain and instead under his watch kept the majority of crew alive, he happened to be the messenger to the world of changing times.  Like all messengers, Cook is blamed.  Horwitz compares Cook’s journals with what he witnesses first hand and concludes, like Cook did with incredible foresight, that Western influence has brought on much harm to the South Pacific island nations.  Horwitz uses Cook’s early life and infers from Cook’s habits and routines to create a profile of the type of man he was.  His findings are incisive–  the fact that Cook strived so hard to raise up in the ranks, leave home, and not name any of his discoveries after his family or childhood home suggest that his early youth was difficult and he struggled with his parents.  This is corroborated by the fact that Cook was meticulous and precise in everything he did (his maps that he drew were so accurate they were used until 1994), a trait of people who grew up with alcoholic parents.  Cook’s legacy is as disheartening as his childhood.  In the South Pacific he is either vilified or forgotten, and many island nations are still coming to grips with how to represent him.

Horwitz’s narrative readable, informative, and funny.  He offsets the seriousness of Cook with his own traveling high-jinks, mostly in the form of Roger, his drunken, foul-mouthed Aussie friend and traveling companion.  Horwitz tries as much as possible in today’s age of technology to keep his travels as close to Cook’s as he can, but he also uses his hard-nosed investigative skills to uncover as much about each place he can, as can be seen in my favorite chapter: “The Hunt for the Red Banana.”  Overall, he paints a compelling portrait of Cook, flaws and all, and shines light on what it meant to live at a time when two worlds began to collide.

Over two hundred years later Cheryl Strayed puts on her own shoes to walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  As Cook’s journey was onward and outward, Strayed’s journey was inward as she reflected on what it means to live in her own skin.  How did she ruin her life and end up on this journey for which she was ill-prepared alone?  The PCT was just as unknown to her as the Pacific was to Cook.  In her months-long journey she faces this question as well as dangers such as bears, rattlesnakes, strange men, inclement weather, and her own inexperience.

At the beginning of her journey, it’s rather easy to not like Strayed.  In the aftermath of her mother’s death, she makes some really bad choices– it is difficult to not pass judgment.  What makes her memoir so successful is her recognition of her failures at the beginning.  She does not ask for the reader’s forgiveness, nor does she excuse her choices.  She takes a hard look at her relationships with her mother, family, and ex-husband.  She comes to terms to who she is and why she is that way.  Her thoughts and actions are unflinching as she says, “The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer– and yet also, like most things, so very simple– was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do” (69).  There is no escape on the trail, yet she stuck with it, tenaciously plodding ahead.  She earns her redemption through each step of her journey, gaining respect from other hikers, her readers, and herself along the way.

One of the greatest lessons she learned on the trail was how much we let stories define us or let ourselves be defined by others.  In the beginning of her hike she thinks, “Fear, to a great extent, is born from a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe.  I was strong.  I was brave.  Nothing could vanquish me” (51). This story motivated her to push on when most of us would have run for the nearest set of four walls with a locking door.  She examines how the stories of her parents shaped her story and eventually learns which parts are their story and which are hers.  In the end, she has her own story to tell that is hers and hers alone.

We have to respect those who go out into the unknown, uncertain of their safety and what they will find.  They make discoveries far more than those of us who cling to the familiar and the safe.  While Cook was not out on the ocean soul-searching, he and Strayed made the same discovery.  Strangers out on the trail or on faraway islands are often kind and seek understanding.  When Cook and his men met the islanders, the majority’s first impulse was to show goodwill; the second, to establish communication.  Strayed met many who wanted to share stories of the hike and have camaraderie with others.  In the end, even though our journeys are as far flung as places on the map, our destination is always the same: understanding.

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11 thoughts on “Into The Great Wide Open: Two Book Reviews

    1. I hope you check them out. Horwitz wrote another book called “A Voyage Long and Strange” in which he delves into the lives of the explorers who populated the Americas between Columbus’ discovery and the Puritan’s landing. It’s also interesting, but I enjoyed “Blue Latitudes” better.

  1. This is off topic, but I’ve been meaning to tell you this. Every time I see your blog I think of something my daughter said when she was 10 or so. She was badgering me to let her bake a store-bought brownie mix. She finally said to me, “If you can read, you can cook!” Hence, Read-N-Cook makes me chuckle.

  2. Hey there 🙂 I introduced suraiya nasim to ur blog as full of humorous wisdom 🙂 i see that U two have discovered each other more meaningfully 🙂 i have one more blogger whose perspective is interesting at http://sindagi.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/longing-for-what/

    The book reviews here are so good for a lazy one like me 😉 love ur last Para on the essence of communication among people that makes us humane instead of predators

    1. Thank you for sending Suraiya my way! Her poetry is amazing– what talent! I will check out your new recommendation soon.

      I think that the great majority of us are humane; we all want the same thing: to live peacefully. Think of the blogosphere– we all write to connect to others, even those on the opposite sides of the globe.

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