“Be Brave, Be Strong” book review
Jill Homer, whom I am blessed to call a friend, has written a new book about her journey up to and race of the 2009 Tour Divide. In reflecting on the 300+ page book, which I read in one sitting on Monday night, I can think of no better words to summarize it than those in the title itself: it is a very brave, very strong book indeed.
In several ways it is a simpler work than her previous book “Ghost Trails.” The narrative arc is a straightforward chronological account of five months in 2009, beginning with Jill’s frostbite induced DNF from the Alaska Ultrasport race and ending with her arrival at the Mexican border upon completion of the Tour Divide. The story is compact, easy to follow, and in many ways, simple. Jill struggles with failure at the Ultrasport (failure of judgment, not of ability), the choice of leaving her job as a newspaper editor and home of Juneau, and with her longtime boyfriend breaking off their relationship of eight years. This frequently gut-tangling story is the first part of the book. The second is the tale of Jill journeying to Utah to visit her childhood home, train, and to rebuild enough mental fortitude to even start the Tour Divide.
I looked into his eyes; they reflected a sort of hollow exhaustion. I
wanted to tell Geoff that I didn’t know who he was. I wanted to scream that
I couldn’t be sure even he really knew who he was. But before the words
could leave my lips, I realized with a calming tremor that his explanation did
have rings of truth. Geoff and I lived in the same house in Juneau, but we
went to our separate jobs and did our separate runs and bike rides and hung
out with our different friends and co-workers. For so long, too long, we had
floated on memories and routine. There was little else to salvage. Geoff and
I hadn’t been close in a long time. But people don’t just give up eight years
like that, not like that, with hollow words in rooms lit like prison cells. I tried
to form the words to tell him that people don’t just throw away a decade of
investment in a relationship on fleeting whims. But I was again silenced by
cold realization — people do that all the time.
“So,” Geoff ’s voice cracked. “Will you still go to Utah with me?” (p. 44)
It’s worth stopping and remembering that when she took the start in June Jill had been on crutches three months before, and while in endurance racing the mental dimension is the most important, a certain physical level is required, if for no other reason than to hold up to hours and days of effort without injury. Jill showing up at all under extraordinarily less than ideal circumstances is the crux of the narrative, and readers may well think what I did as a race spectator back in 2009; that given her track record of tenacity once Jill began riding south a finish was fait accompli.
Thankfully for a reader it was not quite that simple, and we are treated to an intimate account of all the thrilling ups and downs of an athletic and personal feat of such magnitude. There’s a generic pleasure here of such effective vicarious living, especially when so many of the poignant moments involve unspeakable misery. There is also the very specific pleasure of Jill, the fearless writer, at the height of her raciocinative powers.
Eventually, my mouth became so dry that I could not swallow, so I
reached for my water valve and took large, delicious gulps, savoring the water
even more than I had the food. As I drank, I moved around my makeshift
campsite, picking up the miscellaneous objects that had been strewn like an
unkempt yard sale around my bicycle. During my apathetic delirium the night
before, I had managed to disgorge most of the contents of my bicycle bags
all over the ground, and then left them out all night at the mercy of animals
and rain. Luckily, nothing seemed to be missing, and after about fifteen
anxious minutes, I managed to put the whole damp mess back in order. With
a couple thousand calories in my belly, I felt a blast of exuberance about my
miraculous turnaround. In reality, my skull still throbbed beneath a pounding
headache and I was still deeply dehydrated, but I felt like I had ricocheted off
my own deathbed. (p. 296)
The narrative of personal struggle leading to and then quickly beyond personal triumph is likely the first literary trope to exist in prehistory, and “Be Brave, Be Strong” falls right on a line that runs through Homer to Shackleton and beyond. It’s a tale exceedingly well told, and yet there is more to it than just that. When I reviewed “Ghost Trails” several years ago I wrote
The tradition in male adventure literature (which is still a redundant term) is to gloss over the mishap and moments of panic, briefly describe the solution, and move on to other things, thus endorsing the stiff-upper-lip and tacitly reinforcing one’s own mental toughness. Jill seems to do the opposite, the terror of the Kuskokwim River waterfall and the Farewell Burn singe a reader’s memory.
I think this has become even more true with “Be Brave, Be Strong.” Not only does the reader get an emotional rich and honest account of the intra-race struggles, we get a marvelously sweeping and enveloping emotional contextualization of those struggles. I do not think that readers who have not had the pleasure of knowing Jill personally will be any less inclined than me to, when reading of her failing freewheel in the Great Divide Basin, jump through the screen and give her a push and yell down the road when the shattered ratchet mechanism finally engages.
“Be Brave, Be Strong” is a book both simple and enormously complex, a story both nuanced and quick-reading, and an adventure narrative of both personal and cultural significance. As a sequel to “Ghost Trails” it is both a spellbinding continuation of Jill’s development as a cyclist and as a person, as well as a major step forward in the integrity of her craft. Most of all, it elevates the joy of suffering on a bike to high intrapersonal art. Be warned, if you have any inclination towards long searching bike rides that idea will have been sunk much deeper by the time you finish this book.
Thank you Jill, for letting us so bravely inside your life for a few moments. More than ever we now know that it is as we suspected, a challenging and thrilling place.