Epic Solitude: A Story of Survival and a Quest for Meaning in the Far North
by Katherine Keith
Expected publication: February 4, 2020, by Blackstone Publishing
Memoirs about women going out into the world to find themselves or their own truths have become a veritable cottage industry since the success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. While these books became instant bestsellers, the lookalikes they inspired have garnered an ocean of criticism regarding traveling long distances in search of spiritual truths, as though Henry David Thoreau didn’t do the same thing in 1854 and write a classic while his mother did his laundry for him.
With her memoir, Epic Solitude, dogsledder and wilderness athlete Katherine Keith recounts the experiences that led her from a childhood in the Minnesota woods to the Pacific Crest Trail in California to life in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness north of the Arctic Circle. Her life has not been an easy one. Though her childhood was relatively idyllic, it took a sharp turn in her teens, leading to eating disorders, sleep disorders, and undiagnosed mental illnesses that took their toll on her life and relationships. She headed west in search of answers, hiking a long span of the Pacific Crest Trail before taking part in a series of Native American rituals that helped her unravel her past traumas. But this did not heal her, and when she hit rock bottom she bought an old van and headed to Alaska, the place she had always dreamed of living. There, she sets her feet onto a path that would lead her to love, tragedy, and ultimately a path to purpose and happiness.
“If I allow myself to get wrapped up in adversity, the wallowing can wreck my race. If I surrender, ride the waves, some breathtaking gift– a sunset, a moonrise, the northern lights– is always waiting just around the bend in the trail. This is the balance. Not only the race, but life itself.”
Truth is at the core of Epic Solitude. Keith’s travels are meant to help her discover her own spiritual truths, and every turn of the story she tells the truth about herself. While memoirists tell the truth about themselves, they often polish it up to make themselves look just a little better than the reality would otherwise show. Not so for Keith, who writes the full, unflattering truth about her own faults and failings, and doesn’t gloss over a single event of the worst mistake of her life– one that leads to an incredible tragedy.
But while Keith tells the unvarnished truth of her life, the story itself is told unevenly. It bounces back and forth between past and present, an often jarring narrative choice that lacks an obvious reason. Are the short chapters dealing with dogsledding and the Iditarod meant to provide a guiding star for the reader when they are traversing the morass of Keith’s younger years? Are they meant to provide suspense across the chapters when she describes her failed first marriage? For the most part, they seem to chop Keith’s early life into a series of anecdotes, reducing their power in a way ill-suited to the overall story. Her struggles with mental illness are, after all, what sent her fleeing into the Alaskan wilderness in search of peace. The driving force of one’s life deserves more than a series of choppy anecdotes.
But the power of Keith’s story rises above the manner in which it is told. She spends most of her youth in a constant struggle to start over, sometimes giving in to her despair, and sometimes conquering it. While she may not be the most gifted of storytellers, Keith clearly has a fascinating story to tell. If readers can overlook the jittery pacing and questionable dialogue, then Keith’s story of rising from her own ruin is an inspiring one. As a memoir of a life lived in the extreme places of the world, Epic Solitude emerges as a solid but less-elegant heir to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
Thank you to NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing for providing a free egalley in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.