Book Review: Ghost Trails, by Jill Homer

You may be familiar with Jill Homer’s blog, Jill Outside, formerly known as Up in Alaska. Around here we affectionately refer to her as “Crazy Jill,” because some of her adventures are, well, a little crazy. We started following her because of her beautiful pictures of Alaska, but it’s hard to resist her tales of derring-do.

More of those tales are exactly what you’ll find in Ghost Trails. I grabbed a copy of the book thanks to a promotion Jill is running right now, and I’m really pleased that I did. The story is episodic, alternating a linear narrative of her bike race on the Iditarod trail with stories from further back in her past. The older stories explain, ultimately, how Jill ended up in Alaska, but they’re illustrative of character and psychological development, rather than presenting a firm chronological biography.

The Iditarod story is gripping, in the same way that Jack London stories are. Outdoor memoirs have a certain disadvantage in terms of suspense–obviously the author survived–but Jill keeps you fascinated. The other, more autobiographical narrative is equally compelling, with each moment left more on its own. Jill resists the memoirist’s pitfall of explaining why every moment matters, instead letting things play out on their own poignant terms. My favorite story is the oldest one, of a failed hike Jill took as a little girl.

That narrative of failure sets a tone for the rest of the book. Failing is always just around the corner in all of Jill’s adventures. What if, each story asks, this is the time that things don’t work? More importantly, the stories question why the foreseen failure didn’t happen this time. What is the difference between a race you finish and a race you don’t? Why can you push through some things and not others? How fictional is the line between success and its opposite? At the same time Jill also touches on all the kinds of commonplace problems and setbacks of the outdoor lifestyle. As someone who often totally fails in very commonplace outdoor adventures, I loved this very human touch. Let’s face it–most outdoor memoirs are written by men, and men don’t usually admit to things like falling off the side of a trail or forgetting to eat.

Unlike in many self-published books, the writing in Ghost Trails is clear and lovely. I taught college writing for five years, which makes it impossible for me to read bad prose. Combined with the page-turning nature of the story, it makes for a fast read. My “few chapters before bed” turned into “reading until 2:00 in the morning” which turned into “finishing the book during breakfast.” Jill is running the book discounted as a promotion for her new book, due out sometime very soon, which I will also surely be picking up.