Cult figure Everett Ruess gained a wider fame after Jon Krakauer’s best-selling Into the Wild identified a number of parallels between Ruess and Chris McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s book. Both young men were idealistic dreamers, drawn to wilderness solitude, and both disappeared in the wild under mysterious circumstances. Ruess’ body has never been found.

David Roberts’ definitive biography draws a full and sensitive portrait of the quixotic Ruess, who spent four years making increasingly arduous solo treks into the Southwestern canyonlands before disappearing in 1934. While the rest of America suffered under the strictures of the Depression, he scoffed at those who worked for a living, while financing his wilderness trips largely through an allowance from his parents. Ruess grew up in a loving, artistic and possibly over-involved family, and his rebellious claims to independence (bolstered by that allowance) make him sound exactly like the teenager he was, and strengthen his connection to McCandless.

Through the ample quotations from Ruess’ letters and diaries included here, we hear the adorable hubris of this wilderness-loving boy. “I must pack my short life full of interesting events and creative activity,” Ruess writes to his brother, mixing radiant descriptions of the desert alongside stories of throwing boulders off cliffs and chasing after his runaway burros. Roberts’ aim in this biography is to provide a corrective to overly idealized portraits of Ruess, and he does not shy away from discussing Ruess’ looting of Anasazi ruins or his use of a Navajo hogan for firewood. A balanced portrait emerges of a complex figure who—while fascinating—was no saint.

The second half of Finding Everett Ruess reads like a detective novel, as Roberts tracks Ruess’ afterlife through the theories and legends that surround his disappearance. Roberts pursues a lead that takes him and a team of forensic anthropologists to an anomalous ridgetop grave, and seems poised to solve the mystery. His narrative about working with Ruess’ niece and the Navajo family that found the grave provides a suspenseful kick that will keep readers hooked until the very end of the book.

Perfect for a late summer read, this biography will attract many more people to the brief, artistic life of Everett Ruess, and provide compelling fodder for further debate about the many issues raised by his life and death.

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