Hallmark it ain’t: ‘Torch’ illuminates grief’s brutality

First-time author Cheryl Strayed lost her mom not long before graduating from the University

Don M. Burrows

What is it like to die of cancer? Or to be married to a woman dying of cancer? Or to be the 17-year-old son of a woman dying of cancer? Or a 20-year-old daughter?

Cheryl Strayed’s “Torch” takes us mercilessly into the world of a family dealing with the inevitable experiences of death and grief in a completely inevitable way.

The novel is semi-autobiographical ‘ meaning the characters and their quirks are so uncomfortably real that at times it’s clear Strayed doesn’t want you to like them (although you will) so much as she wants to bring them believably to life. What’s undeniably real is the work’s grief and hope, a combination that has driven Strayed’s writing career since her mother died of cancer two months before she graduated from the University.

“I did struggle in some of the same ways as some of the characters did,” Strayed said. But beyond those similarities, “that’s where it starts to get fictional.”

She also fictionalized her small hometown in northern Minnesota to come up with the town Midden ‘ which becomes a sort of character itself.

However much the characters are inventions, it’s clear in speaking with Strayed that they are imbued with years of her own reflection on youth, parenthood and death.

“What I thought when I was growing up is what a lot of people experience with their mothers Ö that she’s just there, that she loves you and that she’s always going to be there,” she said. “And the work she does is just kind of invisible.”

In her work and her words, Strayed illuminates the unique difficulty of losing a parent in young adulthood.

“At that time, you’re very much about pulling yourself away from your parents,” she said. “But when you lose a parent at that time, you want to do the opposite.”

That’s not to say that the young characters in the book exemplify the kind of unwavering appreciation in the face of their mother’s death that often accompanies less honest portrayals. When 17-year-old Josh finds out his mother is dying, he doesn’t stop being a 17-year-old, and continues to struggle with the resentment all teenagers sort through at some point.

“The biggest challenge with ‘Torch’ is when people ask me about the book and I tell them about it, and they think they know what they’re going to get ‘ this sort of quaint, Hallmark thing,” she said.

Which it isn’t.

Indeed, “Torch” should be in the library of anyone who has struggled through losing a parent to death or has friends or loved ones who have faced that struggle ‘ that is to say, everyone. Strayed not only takes us into the brutal reality of facing the death of a wife or mother, but also into Teresa Rae Wood’s confrontation with her own young death, and all of the unique guilt, anger and despair that comes with it.

This is borne out poignantly when the novel recollects Wood’s anguish of announcing her cancer to family, how the hardest people to tell of her terminal disease weren’t her two children, but the parents she sometimes hated. Kids are supposed to lose parents, but parents aren’t supposed to outlive their kids. Strayed makes this point wrenchingly without ever actually saying it.

Much of Strayed’s writing prior to “Torch,” her first novel, has dealt with the struggle she felt as a young woman coping with death too soon. And like the grieving process itself, the book marks a turning point in her own journey.

“Without my choosing it, it became the story that I had to tell, over and over again,” she said. “And I’m not interested in telling that story anymore. I’m really done with this story. Torch was really a book from my heart, but now I feel like I’m going to write something totally different.”