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Oh, give me a home where the lava runs free

Residents who live happily in the most dangerous places on earth

By Mark Luce / July 10, 2003



Jack Thompson runs a bed and breakfast in Hawaii. He's got a wonderful two-story house with a wrap-around porch, scenic views of the Pacific, and a tiered garden stuffed with tropical fruits, flowers, spices, and palm trees.

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But he has trouble enticing guests to his edenic spread. Most tourists aren't willing to trek across live lava fields to get to the Lava-Side Inn, nor are they particularly fond of spending the night on the downslope of Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that pumps out the "equivalent of 40,000 dump trucks of lava each day."

The question, of course, is why Thompson dwells in a place where fiery doom loiters about? And that's what intrepid young journalist Jake Halpern is determined to find out in his intriguing new book "Braving Home." Halpern tours the country searching for what exactly makes people live in a flooded, abandoned North Carolina town; on a Louisiana barrier island prone to ferocious hurricanes; in a 14-story tower in snow-trapped Alaska; or in the wildfire and mudslide-prone backhills of Malibu, Calif.

Over the course of his journey, Halpern discovers that the answers to his questions remain elementary: People choose to stay in such inhospitable locales because these places are home. And nothing short of death or destruction appears likely to move this wonderfully strange cast of characters.

While Halpern's earnestness, wordiness, and habit of putting himself in the middle of the story occasionally causes "Braving Home" to flounder, 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.

Take, for instance, Thad Knight. On Sept. 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd plowed into North Carolina, swelling the Tar River and flooding the town of Princeville, the "first incorporated black town in the state and quite possibly the country." A lonely church spire poking through the deep water was the only sign that a town had once been there.

After the flood finally receded, the damage was apocalyptic. "Many [houses] were swept entirely off their foundations, and one had actually been dumped onto the hood of a car. The insides were gutted; furniture, clothing, appliances, pictures, and books were strewn over lawns and across bushes. Even the air was marked, hung with the stabbing odor of rotting pig carcasses and busted septic tanks."

Into this maelstrom trekked Thad Knight. Even though unearthed coffins littered his lot, Thad sat in a recliner in his front lawn and read the Bible - all day, every day until, against the wishes of FEMA, residents followed Thad's lead and slowly rebuilt the town situated on a flood plain. Thad explains, "Well, sometimes folks ask me why I am here. They say: 'What are you doing over here? It isn't going to change anything.' And then I remind them: I'm enjoying myself."

Thad's unfussy statement applies to the others in "Braving Home" as well. Millie Decker, 82 years young and the last of the "Malibu Hillbillies," prides herself on not leaving, or selling, the 18-acre parcel of land that's been in her family for generations, despite the constant threat of furious wildfires.

Millie has been through plenty of fires and would just as soon stay to fight them, thank you very much. And Ambrose Besson, the proud Cajun, wouldn't think of abandoning the sliver of Louisiana land known as Grand Isle. He prefers to ride out the hurricanes that regularly thrash the island.

To the rest of us, such folks look like "kooks." But to them, as Halpern demonstrates so well in "Braving Home," it's we rat-racers, in our quest for more, better, and easier, who have abandoned the pull of place and the multilayered meaning of home, sweet home.

Mark Luce teaches literature at the Barstow School in Kansas City.

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