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Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’

Set in Alaska in the 1920s, this story (based on an old Russian fairy tale) is about Jack and Mabel, a couple who move to live in a farm in a remote part of Alaska, to escape their pain at not being able to have children.  One night they create the figure of a small girl out of snow, and the next morning the snow child has disappeared, but soon a young girl who looks remarkably like their creation appears in the area where they live and befriends them, so that they become almost like parents to her.

I wanted to like this book.  I really did.  People recommended it to me, and I read reviews of it prior to reading it, all of which praised the book highly.  So maybe it’s me, but…it just didn’t grab me.  The writing was really quite lovely in places, but the whole thing had an air of detachment and isolation to it – I never really felt engaged in the story.  The detachment and isolation perhaps reflects the isolated location where the story takes place (and certainly the author’s descriptions of the snowy, remote and lonely place where Jack and Mabel are evocative and atmospheric), but for me it also had the unfortunate effect of me not really caring about any of the characters one way or the other.

I did prefer the parts with Faina, the young girl who may or may not be real.  However, there was a large part in the middle of the story where she is not present, and I found that that portion dragged.  As descriptive as the passages of Jack and Mabel’s work at their farm were, it seemed all quite repetitive.  The story picked up pace in the last 100 pages or so however, and I liked that part more.

Certainly I can see the value of this story, and the eloquence in the writing, and it is understandable that so many readers seem genuinely touched by it.  But unfortunately, it just wasn’t for this reader.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man with a good education, from a well-to-do family, who in 1990, left home without letting anyone know where he was. After travelling around the Southwest of American, in 1992 he entered the Alaskan wilderness intending to leave his old life behind and live off the land.  Chris changed his name, gave away all of his money and all but the most essential of his possessions, and set off into the wild.  Later that year his emaciated body was found in the wilderness by hunters; Chris’s dream had been the cause of his death.  This book pieces together how Chris spent his final two years, using his journals, and the memories and accounts of people he met during his travels.  It also discusses the effect that the whole experience had on Chris’s family, and looks at what might have caused him to abandon everything he knew for everything he didn’t.

The book also takes Chris’s life as a starting point for an examination of why certain people are drawn to such risky pursuits, and what would make someone want to pursue such a solitary and dangerous lifestyle.

I found the parts about Chris and his experiences very interesting.  I never felt that I really understood what motivated him; his family problems and frustration at the consumerist lifestyle might have caused him pain, but they were not especially unusual and would not necessarily make someone so drastically abandon their life.  Reading the words of people who Chris met was also very interesting – clearly he was a charismatic man, who seemed to have a great effect on people who he met, although he also liked his own company.

There was a section about other explorers who have lost their lives in similarly ambitious and dangerous pursuits, and this was one of the most fascinating parts of the book.

Sometimes the writing seemed slightly dry – for instance when explaining the difference between two very similar plants, one of which is poisonous and one of which isn’t – and I found myself losing interest.  However, overall this was a compelling if somewhat frustrating (due to the fact that the reader could never really empathise with Chris McCandless) book, and I would certainly recommend it.

(For more information about Christopher McCandless, please click here.)

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Click here for my review of the 2007 film adaptation.

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This film is based on Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name, which tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from California.  In 1992, he hiked into the Alaskan wilderness, away from society and civilisation, where he could hunt and live off the land.  His emaciated body was found four months later, he having apparently died from starvation.  In May 1990, Christopher gave almost $25,000 dollars (the remains of the money given to him by a friend to study a degree) to Oxfam International, and effectively ran away from home, hitching his way across America.  En route he made several friends, all of whom seemed fairly transient due to his reluctance to stay in one place for very long; his aim was to get to Alaska, and all the people he met on the way and the casual jobs he did were just part of the journey.

The film starts just as he gets into the Alaskan wilds, and then jumps back to an earlier time to show the McCandless family dynamic, and the events that led up to Christopher’s journey.

Emile Hirsch plays Christopher, and does an excellent job.  Christopher is clearly an academically gifted young man, but is also possessed of a certain naivety, and has been damaged by his parents’ abusive relationship and their harsh emotional treatment of him and his sister Carine.  Fine support is provided by, amongst others, Catherine Keener, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt and Vince Vaughn, but this is really Hirsch’s film and he carries it very well, depicting the young man’s descent from optimism and eagerness into loneliness and fright.

It is an absorbing film, and although it’s about two and a half hours long, it certainly didn’t feel that long.  I didn’t feel that it romanticised what happened to Christopher, although from reading more about the actual true story, it would seem that some poetic licence may have been used.

I definitely cared about the character, although even if I hadn’t known his eventual fate before watching, it still would have always seemed that his journey would not end in a happy way.  However, I also found him quite frustrating at times.  He hitched into an environment that he knew little about, and didn’t seem to make even the most basic preparations.  Unfortunately, this cost him dearly.

The film was shot on location in Alaska, and there are some fantastic scenes showing the beautiful and unforgiving landscape.  (Almost made the film worth watching for the scenery alone.)  I must also mention the fantastic soundtrack, which was done by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.  The songs fitted the various moods of the film perfectly, with some gorgeous and haunting melodies.

So to sum up, in parts this film is uplifting, but it is also very sad sometimes.  But it was certainly well worth watching, and a film I would recommend.

Year of release: 2007

Director: Sean Penn

Writers: Jon Krakauer (book), Sean Penn

Main cast: Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook

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Click here for my review of Jon Krakauer’s book.

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