I’ll confess–I have a tendency to avoid reviewing books that I don’t love. This is especially true when it comes to works of memoir and personal narrative. This kind of work is so deeply personal that criticism of it can often feel like criticism of a life lived (not that I’ve ever been guilty about feeling that, myself, of course…).
That said, I found Girl in the Woods to be an interesting reading experience and I’m going to try and write about it. It’s not that I didn’t like the book or think it was bad, but rather that it became an exercise in self-reflection. For most of the reading, the book and I didn’t get on–it was not the book’s fault, but was perhaps a little bit mine.
Girl in the Woods has undoubtedly been compared to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild far more often than is kind, given the cult following the latter has sparked. Just briefly glancing through Goodreads reviews showed me just how many readers found the book after having read Strayed’s first. A Wild fan myself (though I confess it may be my least favorite writing of Strayed’s), I could feel this comparison haunting every page I turned.
Aspen Matis’ Girl in the Woods is about a young girl, nineteen years old, choosing to hike the PCT after she is raped during her first week at college.
Woman exercises/exorcises demons by walking the PCT alone. There should be as many books like this as there are books about men hiking trails, and yet of course, there are few. For one, as Matis describes, the ratio of men to women on the trail is terrifying, dangerous even. So, Strayed’s book looms large in this wilderness woman genre, and I found myself getting frustrated at times because Matis’ book was not that book. And of course it wasn’t!
This book frustrated me because it is honest and real and true–all of the things a memoir should be. I wanted Matis (or, as she is in the book, Debby) to learn more quickly, grow, have her epiphanies sooner. That she continues to trust men who haven’t earned it even after a character in a fictional book would likely have “learned better” is what makes the book real–it is truth. After all, how many times do so many of us make the same mistakes countless times before we finally recognize and attempt to course correct? But oh, how hard for a woman who has been there to sit with another woman while she was there.
Perhaps because I recognized this, I kept reading. Even when I wanted to shake the narrator, I kept reading. To bear witness to a truth that has come within my own life. To bear witness to the raw honesty of a writer who isn’t afraid to be her full, sometimes unlikable self, on the page.
Eventually, the desired growth does come, even if it takes longer than the traditional narrative arc teaches us it should–and isn’t that, too, sometimes true? Should we reshape a narrative of our life just to satisfy the reader’s desires? I’m not sure we should (even if it makes it hard for the reader).
There were many beautifully well written passages, gorgeous descriptions of the PCT and of the ways it can shape a life and a body. I wanted to love this book more than I could, because I saw myself too clearly in its pages.
Since I read Wild, I, like many women, have wanted to thru hike something. To be strong and brave and solo. And yet… I suspect I, too, would latch on to a big strong man (or men) the moment I found myself alone in that vast expanse. Hell, in all the years between Amanda Wants to Do a Long Hike and Amanda Writes this Blog Post, I’ve been on exactly two brief solo hikes, and I spent the entire first one scared out of my mind!
So, if you are a woman like me, who has wanted to be brave and who has so many times been afraid instead, I recommend that you read this book for all that it will be uncomfortable. Look into the mirror if you can, and go on the journey. I’m still parsing it out in my brain, but I think it was worth it, and I’m glad that I did.