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Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwatr Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales, by Jake Halpern; Houghton Mifflin Company, 240 pages.

Even after 9/11, there was still no place like home for millions of New Yorkers. Despite the deaths, destruction, and terror about what might come next, many New Yorkers came to love their city all the more. In Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales, journalist Jake Halpern tries to figure out why some people are so devoted to towns where the living is anything but easy. Halpern tackles this question by traveling to five far-flung and barely habitable locales, interviewing residents who have an “ironclad sense of home,” despite their perilous physical settings. If you’ve ever thought your workplace was a hostile environment, you’ll be interested to know that Halpern finds unexpected connections between stress and comfort. His discovery � that difficulty can breed the most intense of attachments � is universal. Halpern’s subjects include Thad Knight, the only remaining resident in flood-ravaged Princeville, North Carolina; Babs Reynolds, a middle-aged divorcee who ran away to the “in-door town” of Whittier, Alaska, where snow and avalanches keep residents permanently inside; and Jack Thompson, a scowling loner who runs a bed-and-breakfast near the foot of a volcano in Hawaii’s Kilauea. Hanging around with each one for weeks at a time, Halpern attempts to learn why they don’t just pack up and move. “Was it stubbornness?” he wonders. “Was it fatalism? Or had they actually found some strange hidden paradise that the rest of us could not see?” Despite its unusual characters, Braving Home explores a common theme: the struggle to find, in a sometimes harsh world, a place where one belongs. Like New Yorkers returning to everyday life after 9/11, even as they dusted ash from their shoulders, Halpern’s subjects look for normalcy, even comfort, where very little of it exists. Whittier’s residents, for example, have created an entire “town” inside the high-rise that shields them from the weather. Like any other village, it boasts a church, post office, police station, and video rental shop. Readers will enjoy Halpern’s writing. At his best, the author captures the otherworldliness of the places he visits. In Whittier, he describes Reynolds feeding a bird: “The frozen scrap of turkey [spun] wildly against a spectacular backdrop of mountains and sea, until it hit the ground, bounced, and then headed skyward once again, this time in the talons of a bald eagle.” But Braving Home fails to deliver on promises made at the outset. While Halpern sets up his book as an exploratory journey, a quest focused more on his subjects’ psychology than their geography, it often reads like a plain old travelogue. Worst yet, he can’t seem to decide whether he’s an unobtrusive reporter or a character central to the tale. Instead he lurches clumsily between the two modes, distracting us with mundane � and sometimes falsely melodramatic � anecdotes from his travels. ” ‘You’ve got to get me on this flight,’ I told the clerk behind the check-in counter,” he writes of his trip to visit Thompson. “ She nodded but didn’t look up. At last, with her eyes still fixed on the computer screen, she pursed her lips and asked that most welcome of questions: ‘Mr. Halpern, what do you want: window or aisle?’ “ But the largest problem for Halpern is that, despite the unusual places they’ve chosen to live, most of the individuals he profiles don’t make for fascinating portraits. Halpern’s lack of curiousity only compounds this problem. When he asks Millie Decker, resident of the “wildfire capital of North America,” in Malibu, California, what she would do if her house burned down, her reply is characteristically flat: “I don’t know. . . . It would be tough because we don’t have fire insurance.” Rather than probing for more, Halpern’s reporting instincts falter, as he proceeds to ask her about fire insurance. But despite Halpern’s bland subjects, his quest is ambitious and earnest, with some good writing along the way. For this alone, Braving Home is a worthwhile read, especially for suburbanites hankering for a little vicarious danger. Jennifer Fried is an assistant editor at Corporate Counsel.

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