Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife

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EVERETT RUESS: HIS SHORT LIFE, MYSTERIOUS DEATH, AND ASTONISHING AFTERLIFE By Philip L. Fradkin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, 296 pages, $24.95)

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AMERICANS LOVE TO CONTEMPLATE lost things--gold mines, airplanes, ships, and people--then go looking for them. In the case of Everett Ruess, this young man became a symbol of the starry-eyed wanderer and poster child for wilderness advocates, receiving a good share of his notoriety due to two things--poignant letters that chronicle inner turmoil mixed with spirited elation and his disappearance in southeastern Utah, never to been found. Roughly a third of this book dwells on Ruess's "astonishing afterlife" and the people who unsuccessfully pursued the mystery of his demise.

Fradkin has created a work that surpasses all others written about Ruess. Heavily documented, it provides a rich context in historical fact and social analysis, daring to go where others have not trod. Controversial topics such as the possibility of Ruess having a manic-depressive disorder, questions of sexual preference, his inability to maintain normal relationships, and academia's debacle in the DNA testing of skeletal remains give the writing an "edgy" quality. The author, backed by expert opinion, argues a point of view that removes any halo and grounds his subject in reality. Weaving Ruess's words throughout the text blends the familiar (with those who have read his writings) with a new awareness of his complexity. Fradkin achieves balance in portraying an unbalanced soul.

For the reader of California history, particularly pertinent are the chapters about Ruess's early years in this, his birth state, which he later explored at age nineteen (1933). …