I have Oprah to thank for my introduction to Cheryl Strayed. She launched her “book club 2.0″ specifically for Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Wild is good but it in no way compares to this jewel of a book. Under the pen name Sugar, Strayed dispenses advice to many the beleaguered soul. To the people who write to her, and to the readers partaking of this collection now, her words are exactly what they need to hear – blunt, fresh, and poetic as they sound.
Strayed is all of these things at once and every time it works. Unafraid of profanity, she uses the “f word” freely. It serves to jolt her prose and compel her readers to action. Head on, Strayed tackles the hard-to-talk-about: The kinky situations, the unanswerable pathos, the overly vulnerable. She addresses everything with warmth and compassion. There is also a forthrightness that makes itself known at just the right moments.
Despite the pen name, this is not a sugary column. If it were, I don’t think I’d be able to read it. Instead, it’s a sampling of the human condition, with problems that fall along a (highly interesting) spectrum. It’s a series of emotionally healthy responses; Strayed’s hard-won wisdom on display. No one was easy on Strayed and she’s not easy on these people – especially because, very often, they themselves know the right thing to do. They just need a push, words framed just so, or a rendering of their situation in a new light.
Strayed does all of these things and well, but I think what makes this book so powerful is the way she empathizes with each person. Just saying “I’ve been there before” may be enough to ameliorate the hurt or pain one thinks is theirs alone. What’s special about Strayed is that she never lets her supplicants stay there – in their rut, in their unspeakably desparate place. Instead she tries to pull them out or demands that they do the work themselves. She says whatever she needs to to give these people strength – because they need that even more than her wise, guiding words.
Read this book slowly – perhaps a few letters before bed. You may not be able to - “just one more letter” you’ll say to yourself- but there’s a danger in that. If read too quickly they begin to run together so that each piece isn’t given the thought it deserves.
I hope you’ll find something in here to help you through your own particular life struggle. The column that spoke to me most? “Write like a motherf***er.” (You see what I mean about the profanity, now, don’t you?)
Pick this up. Let Strayed’s words wash over you. They will heal you too.