Cheryl Strayed, bestselling author of Wild, poignantly captures the human spirit in her novel, Torch. Strayed’s writing is pure and honest, infused with raw emotion and sharp, pivotal imagery. Torch tells the story of how one family in a small Midwestern town copes with catastrophe, with boundless grief.
Teresa Rae Wood is a bright light in Midden, Minnesota. She’s the inspirational voice behind Modern Pioneers, a local radio show. She’s a loving wife to Bruce Gunther and a devoted mother to two children — Joshua, a high school senior who marches to his own beat and Claire, a college student who grew up fast (due to Teresa’s previous marriage to an abusive man).
Torch begins in a doctor’s office during a cold Minnesota winter. When Bruce peers outside the window, he sees a layer of ice covering the lake nearby. Then, they hear the news. Teresa is diagnosed with cancer and it’s terminal. On their drive home, “they drove past a farm where several cows stood in the bright light of the open barn, their heads turned toward the dark of the woods beyond, as if they detected something there that no human could. A thrashing.”
Suddenly, Teresa is in the hospital. Suddenly, she is dying. And suddenly, she is gone.
Grief is a wild animal. Everyone handles it differently. Torch illustrated the notion that there is no right or wrong way to navigate such loss. Following this unexpected tragedy, the Wood-Gunther family embarked on a series of choices that were the sum of their grief.
Bruce began seeing another woman. Did she erase his love for his late wife? No. Did she replace her memory? Not in the slightest. Yet, he needed companionship to combat his emotional turmoil, the acute pain of loneliness. Needless to say, it was hard for Claire and Joshua to accept. Was their stepfather moving on too soon? Lines could be blurred. There’s a delicate balance between holding on and letting go; preserving the past while moving forward.
Joshua was keen on avoidance. He couldn’t bring himself to visit the hospital during his mom’s final days, and after her death, drug and alcohol use became a way to numb his anguish. He began dealing drugs as well. It would get worse before it got better.
Claire was the downright emotive one. She was earnest and expressive; she wore her heart on her sleeve. She cried. She yelled. Her hurt was overt, and she hurt all over. She, too, targeted her grief through particular means. She filled the empty spaces and tried to cover the sore wounds with other men. Again, it would get worse before it got better.
“It was the story of my life and yet I made everything up,” Strayed wrote in the book’s preface.
I created characters, even as I felt the people I knew and loved in every word I wrote. I set the story in a place that both was and was not my home. Torch is the result of my first sustained effort at digging. When I scratched beneath the surface as I wrote it, I came to understand I didn’t know what I was going to find as each layer revealed itself. It was only after I’d finished that I could see what I’d done: written a novel not only about grief and loss, but also about love in its many forms, about how we find light in the midst of profound darkness, about how we survive what we think we will not. And it’s only from this vantage point — years after Torch was first published — that I can see all my books are about that. How things can be both beautiful and filthy at once.
Cheryl Strayed truly produced an incredible and deeply personal work of fiction in Torch. These characters lead rich, complex lives, demonstrating how life does go on within the wells of disaster and grief.
“I put the story of my family’s sorrow on a larger, mostly make-believe stage so I could make sense of how any of us had managed to come out the other side,” Strayed wrote in her preface. “In doing so, my allegiance wasn’t accuracy. It was emotional truth.”