4:20 pm
Mon January 26, 2004

Braving Home

Book reviewer Nicki Leone wonders how far people will go to be able to stay home.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Nicki's commentary.]

When Jake Halpern was a reporter for the New Republic Magazine, he received a short assignment to do a piece on a couple who refused to leave their condemned Pennsylvanian town. The coal mines under the town had caught fire, and clouds of poisonous gas would occasionally erupt, unannounced, through people?s yards and street intersections. The entire town had to be evacuated?except for this one couple who remained, refusing to acknowledge either the ?condemned? notices on their door or the white smoky mists that the burning mines below caused to drift through the empty town.

Returning to the magazine with a 500 word article and a host of unanswered questions, Halpern remained fascinated by these people who refused to leave their house even when common sense dictated that they would be safer elsewhere. He started to seek out others like them, and this led him on a quest to discover how far, exactly, we are willing to preserve our sense of ?home?.

Some folks, it turns out, will go pretty darn far, which is the ultimate the subject of Halpern?s oddly addictive book, ?Braving Home?. It reads like Bill Bryson lost in an episode of Survivor, or perhaps the Crocodile Hunter set loose on the Home and Garden Network. Five people, five ?extreme? locales, and the only thing they all have in common is the fact that anyone in their right mind would have left long ago.

I actually picked up Braving Home at first because of a story in it on a man who refused to leave his house in Princeville- the all black historic town near Tarboro, NC that was destroyed when Hurricane Floyd dumped 26 feet of flood waters into its streets. The story of Thad Knight, who returned to his ruined house after the flood had subsided, and continued to live there without running water, electricity, or the company of anyone except the packs of feral dogs that roamed the muddy fields is a moving testament to his attachment to his family home, or perhaps to the power of a stubborn temperament.

Halpern goes on to meet people who live in a part of Alaska so harsh that their entire town is forced to live within one 14 story building at the end of a two-mile tunnel (the police department is on the first floor). He found a man in Hawaii whose neighborhood had been turned into an island in the middle of a river of flowing lava. His neighbors gave up, but he didn?t. To make ends meet, he runs a bed and breakfast (is he insured, one wonders, for fire?).

The situations are extreme enough that Braving Home can?t help but be interesting. In fact, it became doubly interesting to me, because as I was reading I suddenly realized that this was the same Jake Halpern I used to baby-sit before I went away to college. I had a hard time reconciling this man who hikes though snowdrifts, swamps and steaming lava fields, with the boy I had helped create Styrofoam caterpillars out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners.

Halpern wants to know what all these crazy people have in common. It isn?t the pioneer spirit; pioneers have a shot at beating their land into submission. There is no arguing with a volcano. It isn?t reclusiveness, although most of the people in Halpern meets have a streak of it. But all of them have family, friends, even social lives (albeit somewhat curtailed by the fact you can?t drop in on them for a beer without a lot of effort).

He doesn?t find a simple answer, but he does discover this; ?Home? for these people isn?t where the heart is, and isn?t simply a house. It is an irresistible combination of both things- an emotional attachment to a physical place so strong, it defies the most insurmountable odds.