At the behest of Oprah, I recently read the new, bestselling memoir Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Wild tracks the author on an eleven-hundred-mile backpacking grunt across the Pacific Crest Trail in California, where her emotional demons are purged through the exorcism that is long-distance hiking.
Strayed’s dependent-yet-hate-filled relationship with her boots (they hurt like hell) is one of the book’s highlights, and when she loses half the crucial pair off a mountainside cliff, it’s almost too much for her (and readers!) to bear. “I let out a stunned gasp,” she writes. “My boot was gone. Actually gone.” This poor woman!, you think, reading. Hasn’t she suffered enough?
It’s a great part of the story, but not only does it make for good reading, it elevates Wild to the level of fairy tale. Indeed, watching the Public Theater’s outdoor production of Into the Woods, the Sondheim/Lapine fairy tale mashup of a musical, Wild came to me in a medium-transcending thunderclap.
Strayed, I instantly realized, is a latter day Cinderella.
Hobbling along the pathway to a better life, both she and Cinderella lead lives of despair and pain; both she and Cinderella are utterly alone; both she and Cinderella face a climactic moment of “one-shoedeness.”
Indeed, Strayed’s description of herself might as well be a summation of Cinderella: “I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.”
Fortunately, Strayed manages to moor herself by the end of the book, as does the Cinderella of Into the Woods. Both go to the mountaintop, learn big, soulful lessons, and emerge equipped to re-enter real life. Whether it’s in the bipolar range between personal loss and shocking natural beauty (Strayed), or in that same expanse between endless housework and princess living (Cinderella), each realizes that equilibrium lives somewhere towards the middle.
As Cinderella sings to her prince, “My father’s house was a nightmare/ Your house was a dream/ Now I want something in between.” The highs and lows make for good storytelling, but living, breathing people need to split the difference.
As for me—and probably you?—I’m tempted by those extremes… tempted, just as long as I don’t have to put on those boots.
But Strayed and Cinderella shoved on their boots and slippers, no messing around.
And perhaps that’s their biggest shared trait of all:
photo by Joan Marcus
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Into the Woods, Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
at the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park
directed by Timothy Sheader, Co-Directed by Liam Steel