Braving Home

Houghton Mifflin: June, 2003

Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava Side Inn, & Other Extreme Locales.
When Jake Halpern was just a cub reporter, he became obsessed with stories about hellish places. In his spare time, he traveled to smoldering coal towns and deadly flood plains to meet with the few diehards who refused to leave. Iron-willed, unfearing, and utterly immovable, these characters captured his imagination. They were the nation’s toughest home-keepers, and he was their aspiring chronicler. His fellow reporters joked with him and nicknamed him the Bad Homes Correspondent. But the more he learned about these people, the more he was drawn to them.

BRAVING HOME is a journey to the most punishing towns in America, but more than this, it’s a periscope into the extraordinary lives of the people who live there. In North Carolina, Halpern finds a retired mill worker who single-handedly mans his hometown in the wake of a devastating flood. In Alaska, Halpern travels to a snowbound high-rise in the wilderness where he meets a woman hiding from her maniacal ex-husband. At the base of a volcano in Hawaii, he stays with a hermit whose house has been surrounded by lava for almost twenty years. And these are just a few of his stops. On a year-long odyssey packed with ocean storms, raging wildfires, and erupting volcanoes – he provides a glimpse into a world where almost all are afraid to venture, and a few refuse to leave.

Braving Home was a Borders' 'Original Voices' book, an Amazon.com 'Breakout Book' and a pick for the 'Book of the Month Club' by Bill Bryson. BRAVING HOME offers a glimpse at some of America's most dangerous hometowns, and the people who refuse to leave them. It was published in softcover in June of 2004.


"The old homily 'there is no place like home' has never been more poignantly and wittily revealed than by Jake Halpern in these lovely vignettes."--Studs Terkel

"Jake Halpern's collection of precarious lives, beautifully written, is witty and deeply thoughtful, funny and heartbreaking all at once. In exploring these settlements of literally marginal eccentrics, he repeatedly brings the truths of life to the surface in the most moving way. Not for a long time have I read a book so good and so wise."--Robert Stone

"A splendid and engaging account of stubbornness in modern America. ... A strangely fascinating and endearing study of human beings' singular capacity to be noble, foolish, courageous, heroic and out of their minds all at the same time. In short, it's terrific." --Bill Bryson, from Book-of-the-Month Club News

"Jake Halpern's first book might be called the anti-real estate guide. He takes us to godforsaken places and shows us why a person might love them - a lucid look at the habits of hermits, and an intriguing meditation on the nature of 'home.'"--Ted Conover

"Grueling reporting of the kind that leads to a sober, yet heartfelt view of the world. Braving Home is old fashioned journalism in the best sense."--Robert D. Kaplan

"Halpern's flair for description enables readers to easily visualize the environs of these hard-scrabble homekeepers . . . Halpern has carved a creative niche for himself as the New Millennium's skewed answer to the late Charles Kuralt. This is perceptive writing that illuminates the human condition." -- Publishers Weekly, April 28, 2003

"Compelling, well-told tales of people living, literally, on the edge." -- Evan Serpick, Entertainment Weekly, June 20, 2003

"Jake Halpern . . . has a gift for writing with humor and compassion about the lives of ordinary people." -- Elaine McArdle, Boston Magazine, June 2003

"Impressive meditations on the power of place." -- Outside Magazine, July 2003

"Irresistible and funny . . . What's so enchanting about 'Braving Home' is Halpern's infectious sense of wonder, his willingness to be amazed, and his absolute respect for the people he visits." -- Caroline Leavitt, Boston Sunday Globe, July 20, 2003

"[Jake Halpern] has the sensitivity and intellect to see what makes someone cling to what seems like nothing, and the skill as a writer to create scenes that capture the essence of each place, each person." --Cheryl Harris Sharman, Miami Herald, July 20, 2003

"There can be little questioning of the author's swashbuckling spirit, creative approach, and ability to win cooperation - and friendship - from the most willfully mulish codgers on either side of the Pecos." -- Marc Luce, The Christian Science Monitor, July 10, 2003

"Halpern pursues these questions with a curiosity and keen sense of adventure that permeate his wonderfully readable profiles. The author's off-the-beaten-path stories will keep readers turning the pages of this unusual book." -- Martin Brady, BookPage, July 2003

"This is an American reality tale told with compassion, gentleness and humor. . . a new American storyteller steps up to the plate." --Julie Foster, Denver Post, July 13, 2003

"Jake Halpern takes his readers on a quixotic travelogue beyond the bounds of daily heroism. . . . That sense of meaning is apparent in all of these 'brief lives,' which Halpern chronicles with insight and panache. Braving Home combines an evocative grasp of setting with characters who linger in the memory, people whose devotion to their native abode awakens similar feelings closer to home." --Ed Voves, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 2003

"In his affectionate portraits of these extreme homeowners . . . he gives us riveting proof of the mysterious grip of hearth and home." -- Andrew Goldstein, Radar Magazine, Summer 2003.

"A memorable commentary on the bizarre, extreme and otherwise outre places in which people actually choose to roost." -- Elle Magazine, July 2003.

"'Braving Home' is an entertaining and lovingly rendered portrait of stalwart, somewhat eccentric characters who know not only the location, but also the true worth of their real homes. . ." -- Frances Lefkowitz, Body & Soul, August 2003

"This amusing book . . . is like a stay-at-home adventure, with all the excitement but none of the hardship . . . This is the perfect book for armchair travelers interested in virtual visits to 'extreme locations.'" -- David Pitt, Booklist, May 15, 2003

"It's fun . . . he writes well and has an eye for detail." -- Elizabeth Crowley, The Wall Street Journal Weekend Journal, June 27, 2003

"Halpern's believe-it-or-nots are sprinkled with entertaining Americana, history, and a light sketch of the alternative-sanity tenants of the uninhabitable." --Thornton Sully, San Diego Union-Tribune, July 13, 2003

"[Halpern's] voice is a welcome one; he is a fresh, spirited chronicler of a rare breed of people." --John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 2003

"Offers a rare glimpse at some of the wildest dwelling spots imaginable, and the feisty characters who just won't leave them." --Kalee Thompson, National Geographic Adventure, August 2003

"Part travel, part adventure, and mostly fascinating insight into the minds and lives of Americans who call the most dangerous places . . . home." --Richelle Thomson, American Way, August 1, 2003

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Feature from the Book of the Month Club:

"If you had to choose the least best place in the world to put a house, the middle of an active lava field in Hawaii would seem a pretty good candidate, yet that is where an interesting man named Jack Thompson has lived for the past 15 years. It's not that Thompson desires a lot of lava in his life. It's just that if a long-term eruption comes his way he is not going to let it beat him if he can help it. Thompson's is one of five tales contained in this splendid and engaging account of stubbornness in modern America. It is a story of people who refuse to accept that the place in which they live is no longer safe or desirable or both if indeed it ever was. Among the improbable folks whom Jake Halpern introduces us to are a lonesome but dignified man in North Carolina whose town spends much of its life under water; the people of Grande Isle, Louisiana, who perch on a frail island in one of the world's most reliably lively hurricane zones; and the Californians who inhabit a wooded eden notorious for its routine and devastating wildfires. Above all, there is the cherishably bizarre town of Whittier, Alaska, which exists more or less entirely inside an abandoned high-rise building built by the American military and abandoned years ago.  How Halpern, a young reporter formerly attached to the New Republic, came to write the book (and finance the costs of his research trips) is something of a story in itself. The whole is a strangely fascinating and endearing study of human beings' singular capacity to be noble, foolish, courageous, heroic, and out of their minds all at the same time. In short, it's terrific."


Feature on ABCnews.com - Link to Site


Feature on CNN.com:

Entertainment - Book Review
by L.D. Meagher

Thomas Wolfe may have insisted, "You can't go home again." Jake Halpern begs to differ. In "Braving Home," he profiles five places people insist on inhabiting, despite being uninhabitable. One is underwater (well, it was for a while), another is an all-but-inaccessible high rise in the Arctic, yet another routinely catches fire.

Halpern, a magazine writer, spent time in all of them and learned something about the people who stay there.

Like Jack Thompson. His house sits in a shrinking oasis, surrounded by the lava flowing from the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Halpern describes crossing a smoldering moonscape to reach what might literally be a small slice of paradise that Jack calls home.

Thompson is not a fool. He understands how precarious his existence is. During the writer's visit, "Jack discovered a small note tucked into the front door. The note was scrawled hastily across the face of a business card from a local helicopter pilot named Richard Gruno. It read: 'Jack, stopped by to talk to you about lava.' ... Jack shook his head, chuckled, then pondered aloud, 'Why didn't he just say, "Run like hell"?'"

The people who live in isolation, even desolation, have much in common. Halpern got to know them well enough that he can spot characteristics that seem to drive men and women to put down roots on the edge of a precipice.

What he found may surprise you. In Halpern's hands, their stories are not about survival. They are tales of determination, courage and just plain orneriness.


Feature in the Yale Alumni Magazine - Link to Site



Feature including an interview with Babs, on Living on Earth - Link to Site

Interview with Jake on NPR's Talk of the Nation- Link to Site


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The Underwater Town:
North Carolina

Princeville was reputed to be the oldest all-black town in America, until September of 1999 when it vanished beneath a sea of floodwater that covered much of northeast North Carolina. When the water finally receded, there was little left of Princeville. Newspaper headlines were soon reporting that the town was empty, completely abandoned, nothing but a “Waterlogged Pompeii.”

Little did anyone know, at the far end of town, one man remained – perched on a battered recliner, wrapped in a thick wool blanket, slowly reading his Bible. Thad Knight was the town’s sole inhabitant. His house was gutted. His life’s belongings were lost. Yet there he stayed throughout the fall and into the winter, amid a forsaken landscape of wrecked houses, a seventy-two year old black man sitting in the frost.

As Thad single-handedly manned the town of Princeville, the town’s officials bickered over a massive buyout proposed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was an all-or-nothing arrangement: Everybody stayed, or everybody left. This is the story of a man who refused to budge, and the town that followed his lead.


Tower of the Arctic:
Whittier, Alaska

Picture a rugged ice-strewn stretch of Alaskan coastline, utterly empty and unending, punctuated by a single fourteen-story high-rise. This building is the “city” of Whittier, Alaska. Almost all of the town’s residents live in this monolithic bunker, and everything they needed is just an elevator ride away.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Whittier is its lone entrance way – a 2_-mile long railroad tunnel that burrows beneath a surrounding wall of mountains and brings a train into town several times a week. All in all, Whittier is a perfect natural fortress. In fact, originally, it was built as a mega base for the U.S. military; yet by the early 1960s, Whittier was decommissioned and its population dropped from 10,000 to 32.

Nowadays, Babs Reynolds is among the hardy few who remain. Babs has survived the town’s snowstorms, its avalanches, and its legendary claustrophobia. Not surprisingly, Whittier has a reputation for pushing some of its residents over the edge. Some even refer to the fourteen-story high-rise as the “Overlook Hotel” – a reference to the snow-covered resort in Stephen King’s novel The Shining, which eventually drives its overseer mad. For Babs, however, Whittier offers safety and a number of unexpected allures.


The Lava-Side Inn:
Royal Gardens, Hawaii

One night, not so long ago, Jack Thompson awoke suddenly in a room lit in demonic, red light. Groggily he rose to his feet, teetered over the to the window, and glanced out towards a massive river of molten lava. He watched a glow of fiery syrup roll its way down towards the Pacific, where it detonated in a long series of blasts, bringing the seawater to a hissing boil. Jack enjoyed this spectacle for a moment or two, then slowly climbed back into bed, pulled the pillow over his head, and fell back to sleep. This was no cause for alarm, just another high-flow night on the edge of Mt. Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano.

Jack Thompson’s house is the one of the only remaining traces of Royal Gardens, a town that has been surrounded by miles of lava for almost twenty years. Jack is Royal Gardens’ last inhabitant. Nowadays the town’s rooftops are sprouting with grass, its vacant houses are shrouded in vines, and its streets are frequented by wild boards. Yet as far as Jack is concerned, this spooky little pocket of greenery remains a perfect place to call home.


Canyon of the Firefighting Hillbillies:
Malibu, California

Millie Decker is the last of the Malibu hillbillies. She’s old as dirt, barely five feet tall, tanned like leather, cranky like a cactus, and absolutely crazy about her ranch. She’s Malibu’s dust-strewn memory, and in case you forgot or never knew, she’s there to tell it like it was. Long before all the glitz – before the movie stars, the big-time developers, and the bikini-clad gold-diggers – Malibu was home to California’s toughest cowboys and hillbillies, and age at eighty-one, Millie Decker is still one of them.

Millie has confronted many dangers in her life – taming wild horses, riding crazed bulls, detonating dynamite – but nothing tests her nerve like the wildfires that often hit Decker Canyon. In fact, Malibu is situated on an arid stretch of land, so combustible that it’s known as the nation’s biggest fire corridor. When the fires come, the Pacific Coast Highway is soon congested with hordes of Malibu’s movie stars and millionaires fleeing towards safety. Yet just a few miles inland, Millie can always be found staying to fight the flames with barrels of water and gunnysacks – just as her ancestors have done since the 1880s.


Island of the Storm Riders:
Grand Isle, Louisiana

Ninety miles south of New Orleans, a narrow stretch of land juts out into the Gulf of Mexico, inviting the fiercest punishment the sea can muster – and without fail, the sea delivers. As massive squalls sweep their way northward past abandoned oil rigs and sunken ships, weather officials listen anxiously to the crackle of the radio, waiting to hear the voice of Ambrose Besson. Grand Isle is Louisiana’s only inhabited barrier island, and Ambrose Besson is one of the few residents who never leaves.

Ambrose has been riding out storms for almost seven decades, a distinction he intends to carry to the grave. For him the storms come and go like clockwork. Before the island floods, which it inevitably does, the road to the mainland goes under. Shortly after this the power goes out. That’s when Ambrose cranks up the generator, flicks on the radio, and tells the continent what to expect.

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