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Jon Krakauer is an American nonfiction writer, journalist, and mountaineer best known for his works about the outdoors and mountain climbing. His nonfiction works Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven have been best-sellers and received widespread critical attention. Aside from being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has also been the recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Book of the Year by Time magazine.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Childhood in the West
Jon Krakauer was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1954 but grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, where his family moved when he was two years old. Though Krakauer himself was not raised as a Mormon, this community in Oregon had a large Mormon population, and Krakauer’s experiences with members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints would inform his later work, Under the Banner of Heaven. In 2003 Krakauer wrote that ”[Latter-Day] Saints were my childhood friends and playmates, my teachers, my athletic coaches. I envied what seemed to be the unfluctuating certainty of the faith professed so enthusiastically by my closest Mormon pals; but I was often baffled by it. I’ve sought to comprehend the formidable power of such belief ever since.”
Mountaineering and Writing
In addition to sustaining a large Mormon population, Corvallis, Oregon, is situated near a mountain range and served as a hub for mountain climbers and outdoor adventurers. Krakauer’s father, an active alpinist, introduced his athletic child to the sport of mountain climbing when Krakauer was eight. Krakauer excelled at climbing, a sport that would later take him on the adventures to Alaska and Mount Everest that would inform his books Into the Wild and Into Thin Air. As a teenager Krakauer was also a competitive tennis player at Corvallis High School, where he graduated in 1972. He then enrolled at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and took up environmental science, which fostered his already pronounced love of nature and outdoor sport. While in college, Krakauer was part of a group of mountaineers who were the first to climb the Arrigetch Peaks in the Arctic National Park of Alaska. For this, he was invited by the American Alpine Journal to write about his experience. Krakauer received praise for his article, and began to contemplate a future career that would wed journalism to outdoor sport.
Experiences in Alaska
Krakauer received his bachelor’s degree in 1976, and in 1977 he spent three weeks alone in the wilderness of the Stikine Icecap region of Alaska. During this trip to Alaska he met former climber Linda Mariam Moore, whom he ultimately married, in 1980. In 1977 Krakauer published a popular magazine article about a climb he completed, alone, during which he charted a new route to the peak of Devil’s Thumb in Alaska. After the publication of this article, Krakauer began receiving regular magazine assignments. Aside from writing, he worked as a commercial salmon fisherman and carpenter. In 1983, he abandoned these jobs to be able to write and climb full time. In 1990, Krakauer published his first book, Eiger Dreams, a collection of his magazine writing. In 1996, Krakauer utilized his extensive knowledge of the terrain of Alaska to publish Into the Wild, for which he researched and recreated the life of Christopher McCandless, a twenty-four-year-old who renounced all material possessions, hitchhiked to Alaska, and attempted to climb Devil’s Peak. Determined to live off the land, McCandless carried with him only a shotgun, a bag of rice, and some books. Four months later, his body was found: he had starved to death. Near the body was a desperate note in which he begged to be saved. Krakauer used McCandless’s journals and postcards, as well as interviews with those who knew him, to reconstruct the last two years of the boy’s life. The book was an instant best-seller.
Climbing Mount Everest
In 1996, Krakauer joined fellow mountaineers and embarked on a guided ascent of Mount Everest, arguably his most famous climb. However, their descent from the mountain was hampered by a disastrous ice storm, which left four of his teammates dead. He relayed these experiences in an article for Outside magazine, for which he received a National Magazine Award. In 1997 he expanded the article into the book Into Thin Air. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction in 1998. In response to the events he recounted in Into Thin Air, Krakauer established the Everest ’96 Memorial Fund, which provides humanitarian aid to the peoples of the Himalayan region through royalties from the book as a tribute to those who perished during the expedition. During this period Kra-kauer also published a Smithsonian article about Mt. Rainier, a prominent volcano in the state of Washington, which earned him a Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.
Examining Extremism in Religion
In 2003, Krakauer shifted away from outdoor adventure and published the book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, which explored the history of the Mormon religion in America. While the book discussed the nineteenth-century roots of Mormonism with the revelations of prophet Joseph Smith, it also focused on twentieth-century Mormon fundamentalism. In particular, it focused on the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty by her fundamentalist brothers-in-law Ron and Dan Lafferty, and the kidnapping and subsequent brainwashing of fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart by Mormon polygamist Brian David Mitchell. Though receiving much critical praise, the book became an item of controversy and garnered much opprobrium by members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Krakauer’s articles continue to appear in such periodicals as GEO, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, and Architectural Digest. He is currently an editor-at-large for Outside magazine. He lives in Seattle with his wife.
Works in Literary Context
All three of Krakauer’s major works revolve around the theme of extremism—albeit religious or environmental. In Into the Wild, Krakauer chose to chronicle the experiences of Christopher McCandless, a rich, university-educated twenty-four-year-old who decided to give away $25,000 in savings, renounce all material possessions, and seek spiritual transcendence in the wilderness. McChandless eventually succumbed to the harsh weather conditions of Alaska’s mountains, for which he was woefully unprepared. Similarly, Into Thin Air acquaints readers with the travails of the extreme sport of mountain climbing during the most dangerous season on the world’s most difficult climb, Mount Everest. During 1996 fifteen climbers lost their lives trying to reach the summit of the mountain, an event Krakauer would partially blame on unpreparedness resulting from the commercialization of the climb. Nonetheless, the book gives an adventurous rendering of Krakauer’s battles against snow, ice, rock, cold, and starvation. In Under the Banner of Heaven Krakauer would shift his focus away from extremism relating to the elements, and would explore religious zealotry.
In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer states that he began writing the book to answer the question, ”How does a critical mind reconcile scientific and historical truth with religious doctrine?… I was fascinated by the paradoxes that reside at the intersection of doubt and faith, and I had a high regard for congenital skeptics… who somehow emerged from the fray with their beliefs intact.” The result of Krakauer’s investigation is a book that explores the faith, history, and politics of both the Church of Latter-Day Saints and their more fundamentalist Mormon counterparts. Utilizing exhaustive research and countless interviews, Krakauer traces the religion’s roots in the teachings of evangelist Joseph Smith to its current state in all-Mormon communities in Utah and Arizona. Throughout the book—which focuses on the slaying of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter by her fundamentalist brothers-in-law in 1984—Krakauer points out how zealotry often leads to tyranny and violence. In addition, he pays particular attention to how the practice of polygamy can lead to the manipulation or abuse of women and children.
Works in Critical Context
Jon Krakauer has been praised by readers and reviewers for his ability to make nonfiction stories highly accessible and engaging, due to effective structure, narrative skill, and formidable descriptive powers. He is often praised for both the quality and the volume of his research.
Into the Wild
Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s first non-fiction work, was published in 1996 and became an instant success, spending more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list. It tells the tragic story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate who was found dead in the wilderness of Alaska. The book was adapted into a 2007 motion picture directed by Sean Penn. Into the Wild, was described as ”compelling and tragic, hard to put down,” in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Los Angeles Times was also impressed with the book, saying that the storyline was ”engrossing, with a telling eye for detail,” and praised Krakauer for capturing ”the sad saga of a stubborn, idealistic young man.” The Washington Post commended Krakauer for creating a narrative of ”arresting force,” and warned that ”anyone who ever fancied wandering off to face nature on its own harsh terms should give [Into the Wild] a look.”
Into Thin Air
Krakauer’s 1997 book, Into Thin Air, a firsthand account of his May 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, also spent time on top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and was given the Book of the Year award by Time magazine. In addition, it was called one of the Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review and was one of the finalists for the 1997 National Book Critics Award. In 1999 it won the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Into Thin Air was praised for being ”meticulously researched and deftly constructed,” according to Alastair Scott, a New York Times reviewer. Scott also noted that the book’s most interesting quality was Krakauer’s depiction of the deadly storm, and commended Krakauer’s ”ability to recreate its effects with a lucid and terrifying intimacy.” In another review, the Wall Street Journal simply called the book one of the best adventure works of all time.
Under the Banner of Heaven
In 2003, Krakauer released another best-seller, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, which investigates the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, brothers of the Mormon fundamentalist faith who claim that they have the right to kill. The book attempts to uncover and raise questions about the nature of religious belief. Under the Banner of Heaven, however, received more mixed opinions than Krakauer’s previous books. Many reviewers argued that the book offered a new perspective on the dark side of religion. John Freeman, in the St. Louis-Dispatch, noted that the book successfully exhibits ”how extreme sects of the Mormon faith have persisted and continue to operate outside the oversight of the mainstream church and even the U.S. government.” Rachel Collins of Library Journal said that the book was ”a thoroughly engrossing and ultimately startling comment on all fundamentalist ideas.” Book Magazine agreed by saying that Under the Banner of Heaven was a comprehensive study of ”faith and violence in Mormonism,” and that the book ”reminds us of the power of the most pernicious form of evil—evil in the name of God.” As expected, however, supporters of the Mormon faith objected to Krakauer’s work, citing the inconsistencies in his account of the religion’s history and criticizing him for putting the Mormons in a bad light. On June 26, just two weeks before the release of Under the Banner of Heaven, church spokesman Mike Otterson issued a statement charging that Krakauer was ”promoting old stereotypes” and ”tars every Mormon with the same brush.”
- Imbelli, Robert. Review of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild. Commonweal 125, no. 21 (December 4,1998): 234.
- Freeman, John. ”American Massacre and Under the Banner of Heaven.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (July 13, 2003): F10.
- Lattin, Don. ”Blood, Faith and Fanaticism. San Francisco Chronicle (July 13, 2003): M1.
- Donahe, Deirdre. ”Murder by Zealot Mormon Sect Sparks Deeper Look.” USA Today (July 14, 2003):
- Wright, Robert. ”Thou Shalt Kill.” New York Times Book Review 108 (August 3, 2003): 7.
- Harris, Mark. Review of Into Thin Air. Entertainment Weekly, no. 377 (May 2 1997): 50-1.
- Scott, Alastair. Review of Into Thin Air. New York Times Book Review (May 18, 1997): G11.
- Review of Into Thin Air. Wall Street Journal (May 29, 1997): A16.
- Review of Into the Wild. Los Angeles Times Book Review (September 3, 1995): 9.
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