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The search for the rationale behind McCandless’s trip into the wild leads Krakauer to provide a series of anecdotes. After his high school graduation, McCandless takes an extended trip through the American West. Before he leaves, he gives his father a gift of an expensive telescope. While on his trip, he calls home infrequently before falling out of touch entirely. He returns gaunt and bearded just before he is to begin college at Emory in Atlanta. His parents move McCandless into college the next week. He works for the student newspaper and makes high grades. He begins to unravel, however, becoming anti-social. The narrator reveals the reason for McCandless’s change. During his trip, he had discovered that his father had maintained a relationship with his first wife and his other children, heading two households. He had a son with his first wife after McCandless was born, before Walt and Billie moved to the East Coast.
Krakauer then delves into the deeper, psychological motivations behind McCandless’s response to the secret. He posits that McCandless must have been unable to forgive his father, even though he was much more accepting of flaws in other people. Instead, two years after he learned his father’s secret, McCandless became irrational, publishing erratic political opinions in the student newspaper and living in an almost entirely unfurnished apartment without a telephone his senior year. In 1990, after he graduated, he gave all the money his parents had given him for law school, got in the yellow Datsun, and drove away. The narrator relates Billie McCandless’s worry for her son and a moment in 1992, when McCandless had been missing from Atlanta for two years. Billie McCandless woke in the middle of the night, convinced her son was calling for her help.
The narrator visits Christopher McCandless’s younger sister, Carine McCandless, and interviews her about his disappearance and death. She describes for Krakauer her extraordinarily close relationship with Christopher as well as their gentle disagreement over materialism. She describes her brother’s love for the family dog, who now lives with her, and narrates the moment when her husband came home from work to tell her that Christopher had been found dead. She tells the story of visiting Alaska to bring back her brother’s ashes after officials in Alaska have cremated his body. There she was given a number of Christopher McCandless’s belongings: his book of plant lore, his rifle, and several rolls of his film.
Krakauer describes the consequences of Carine McCandless’s grief. Her sorrow over her brother’s death causes her to refuse food until friends begin to suspect she is suffering from anorexia. The same was apparently true of their mother, Billie McCandless, though Walt McCandless gained considerable weight by eating compulsively. At the end of Chapter Thirteen, Carine McCandless revisits her collection of photographs from McCandless’s last days, which she had developed from the film given her along with his remains. She breaks down weeping, which prompts the narrator to reflect on McCandless’s selfishness. Carine McCandless insists that she still does not understand why her brother left.
Chapters Twelve and Thirteen string together more information collected from personal interviews with Christopher’s friends and with the McCandless family. They continue to develop the strongly negative, selfish aspects of McCandless’s decisions as Krakauer illustrates for the first time how badly his death affected his family at the time, as well as the spreading effects of his disappearance into the rest of their lives. Focused primarily on McCandless’s college experiences, Chapter Twelve restarts the narrative of the weekend Christopher McCandless left his apartment in Emory in 1992 and began the trip that would eventually end in his death in Denali National Park. This time, however, initial events are colored by Krakauer’s retelling them through the lens of McCandless’s parents’ experience. Krakauer’s visit with Carine McCandless, which forms Chapter Thirteen, also explores the selfishness of McCandless’s departure and his overall unpredictability not least because McCandless was much closer to his sister than to his parents.
Read more about peripheral characters like Carine McCandless Fish and Billie McCandless.
The plot of Into the Wild furnished by Krakauer’s investigation of Christopher McCandless’s psychology moves into an important phase in both Chapters Twelve and Thirteen, though this is most clear in Chapter Twelve. While he had displayed a certain amount of willfulness in earlier life, McCandless begins to behave more erratically and with less concern for the opinions of others as he grows older. Krakauer’s narration becomes more and more upfront about the eccentricities McCandless cultivated, including the illogical nature of his editorials for the student newspaper at Emory. While he usually treats McCandless’s writings with respect and even approbation, here Krakauer is quick to point out that his ideas are of little coherence and may represent a gathering rage whose personal causes McCandless cannot recognize.
Krakauer follows this section with a long discussion of a trip McCandless took to explore the roots of his childhood after high school. The narrative of his trip seems to mirror the investigations undertaken by Krakauer himself, in that McCandless went to old family friends in search of the answer to a mystery related to his family’s past. The revelation that Walt McCandless practiced a form of de facto bigamy by remaining involved with his first wife after he moved in with Christopher’s mother therefore strikes Christopher and the reader at the same time. This maximizes the impact of the information on the reader, not least because Krakauer believes this trauma was crucial in precipitating McCandless’s decision to leave his family behind.
Read more about how leaving the family persists as a theme in the book.
In Chapter 13, Krakauer details Carine McCandless’s character, asserts it as highly significance to McCandless’s psychology and the reader’s understanding of his life. Her introduction implicitly argues against the idea that the McCandless family secret was sufficient to justify the damage Christopher does to his family with his decision to journey into the wild. By detailing her lifestyle and her dreams of becoming a millionaire early in life, Krakauer establishes Carine as a foil to her brother’s character, suggesting that she could be considered a version of an emotionally stable Christopher, one who hadn’t been as damaged by their father’s secret-keeping. Krakauer’s detailed description of Carine’s violent grief at learning of her brother’s death and her weeping during their interview underscores the damage done to McCandless’s loved ones by his apparent inability to consider the consequences of his recklessness. Her insistence that she does not understand why her brother chose to leave also prevents the reader from giving in to a too-ready sympathy for him or forming a too-simple explanation of his psychological motivations.