If you were a novelist you could retire after creating a character like Gretel Ehrlich. She has twice been struck by lightning (see A Match to the Heart). She has spent months dogsleding across Greenland (see This Cold Heaven). Born in Montecito, growing up staring at the Channel Islands from her bed, she transplanted herself forty years ago to an isolated stretch of the country's least populous state, Wyoming, where, between bouts of award-winning writing and freelance sheepherding, she deepened her love of all things Japanese. The themes of her brave and beautiful new book, Facing the Wave [Kindle], about the resilience of the coastal people in the aftermath of the tsunami, amplify ideas dating back at least to her 1989 essay "The Bridge to Heaven" (in Islands, the Universe, Home) recounting her December pilgrimage to the sacred mountain Osorezan. After an arduous, many-day journey, the truck's final passage was blocked by a locked gate and she decided to walk the rest of way in a blizzard -- twenty-six miles roundtrip.
Okay, you say, so she's a brilliant writer, and a hearty traveler, but what makes her worthy of a great character in literature? Her original vision. Sunday night at Washington's Politics & Prose, during her first reading from the new book, she discussed witnessing, at a tiny inland river temple, survivors bringing bodies of the dead in wheelbarrows, and her reaction was, This is so cool. Not for her any wallowing in sorrow or sticky pieties of optimism. She writes, "neurotic suffering is only the flapping of ego." She believes in action, in "movement: life’s extraordinary experiences entwined with the ordinary, and from that littered ground, the courage to leap."
Her own action is to start a partnership between American architects and Japanese builders to get some fast, responsible housing for the more than 300,000 people still displaced. So far, no website where you can donate but as soon as it's up, you'll find a link on this site.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune says, "In sum, Facing the Wave is a masterpiece of narrative reportage that balances Ehrlich’s own reaction with the voices of the victims."
If somehow you are unfamiliar with her previous fourteen books of essays, travel, poetry, fiction, and biography, start with the new book or her powerful collection The Solace of Open Spaces or This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland.
She's on tour this week: Aspen, Santa Barbara, SF, Corte Madera, Santa Cruz, Seattle, and Portland. On March 11 she will appear on the PBS NewsHour, followed by readings the next two nights in Albany and Manchester, VT.