The Wild Truth

  • By Carine McCandless
  • Harper One
  • 277 pp.
  • Reviewed by Pamela Schmid
  • January 21, 2015

A sister strives to correct her brother’s story, but finds you can never define the whole truth for someone.

The Wild Truth

In 1996, author Jon Krakauer immortalized the life and tragic death of Chris McCandless, whose emaciated and decomposed body was discovered in an abandoned bus in the remotest reaches of Alaska. Krakauer’s haunting narrative, Into the Wild, became an international bestseller, spawned a movie, and raised unsettling, seemingly unanswerable questions.

What would prompt a young man to leave behind the comforts of an upper-middle-class life, cut off all contact with his family, and trek alone into the wilderness? Should such a quest be chalked up to stubbornness, selfishness, idealism, or all of the above?

Nearly two decades later, McCandless’s younger sister, Carine, seeks to make amends and quell mistaken assumptions in The Wild Truth, her attempt to “find a comfortable place between truth and necessity.”

Much of the truth she portrays is harrowing.

McCandless writes of a childhood in which appearance constantly trumped reality. Although she and her brother seemed like the “perfect little kids in the perfect family,” they often witnessed violence and verbal abuse. Their father, Walt, ran a successful aviation business, but also was an unhappy drunk who thrived on control.

And although their mother, Billie, kept a beautiful home, she regularly let her kids know how “we had ruined her life with the weight of our existence.” Moreover, behind her family’s “carefully tended mask” was an even more scandalous charade: For a time, Walt kept two families. Those half-dozen playmates Chris and Carine spent time with as kids were, in fact, their half-siblings.

“The casting was complete. Everyone knew their place,” McCandless writes. “We would all have to unravel the mystery in our own time.”

Chris McCandless uncovered his father’s double life after leaving for college, and his sister describes how it shattered her brother. When he later broke ties from his family upon graduating, she wasn’t surprised. In a long and effusive letter, he’d let her know he planned to “be through with them once and for all forever.”

As Krakauer reveals in the foreword to The Wild Truth, Carine McCandless granted him access to that and other letters while he researched Chris’ life, but she made him promise not to divulge her family’s fraught history. She was barely 20 then and had wanted to protect her parents and half-siblings.

Decades later, she would come to regret that choice. By acting to shield her parents, McCandless effectively gave them cover and let them whitewash their past. Her decision also gave them license to misrepresent a dead son unable to defend himself.

Krakauer credits Carine McCandless for belatedly recognizing that secrets lose their power when exposed to light, but that underscores the fundamental quandary at the heart of her book: Had Krakauer originally received her blessing to incorporate the entire backstory, McCandless would never have felt compelled to set the record straight. 

Was Into the Wild incomplete because of what it didn’t include? And, if so, did this require Carine McCandless’s book-length re-accounting?

Although Krakauer didn’t spell out the McCandless family’s past, it was possible to read between the lines. Much of his book’s power came from his personal stake in Chris’ story. He understood the young man’s infatuation with the wild because he’d felt it, too, and he used that knowledge to try to penetrate the mysteries behind Chris’ impulse to leave civilization behind.

McCandless admits she and her brother were as different as they were similar. His thirst for adventure and disdain for materialism left her puzzled. Despite McCandless’ tight relationship with her brother, she didn’t get him the way Krakauer did.

The Wild Truth lays bare the caustic effects of family dysfunction on the McCandless siblings, but it also zooms ahead to the present. McCandless takes us 20 years past her brother’s death — through the publication of Into the Wild, the resulting explosion of attention, and beyond. To a large extent, this is her story, with many of the 40 glossy pages of photos devoted to life without her brother.

The book has moments that resonate. McCandless feels the void left by her brother’s death, but also his lingering influence. A Tolstoy quote Chris bracketed — “It is a bad thing not to be able to stand solitude” — brings her comfort as her second marriage unravels. She grapples with the mysteries around her brother’s death, wishing that “I knew more about what he’d done and who he’d met.”

But the sections devoted to her parents’ failings are more problematic. At one point, McCandless declares to her half-siblings: “I’ve just grown so weary from trying to promote peace through an endless war.” And, indeed, when she harks back to her disintegrating relationship with her parents, the narrative loses steam.

So methodically does she document every one of their transgressions, every missed opportunity to come clean, that it’s difficult not to wonder whether she’s trying to build a case for her eventual need to expose them.

Into the Wild did not bare all. What so captured the public imagination was Krakauer’s poetic restraint and his probing look at one man’s search for “raw, transcendent experience.” In plain and occasionally unwieldy prose, Carine McCandless tells the whole, unvarnished truth. She recounts the forces that pushed her brother into the wild, but Chris McCandless remains an enigma all the same. Those who pick up her book seeking a glimpse into his soul will likely receive much more fodder than they bargained for. And they still might come away hungry.

Pamela Schmid is the creative nonfiction editor at Sleet, an online magazine. She won a 2013-14 Loft Mentor Series award (nonfiction), and her essay "Black Roses" was named runner-up in Sycamore Review's 2014 Wabash Prize for Nonfiction. Before receiving an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, she spent nearly a decade as a staff writer for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Sycamore Review, River Teeth, Sliver of Stone magazine, and Sweet: A Literary Confection.

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