When the publishing company Thomas Nelson asked if I would like to review Karen James’ Holding Fast: The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy, I agreed to do so: after my wife passed away, I became interested in how others dealt with grief, and hence in Karen’s accounting of the loss of her husband Kelly.
When I began reading the book, I initially felt that it was getting off to a slow start. My type-A personality was looking to get into the details of the tragedy and how Karen coped with it, and instead she began with a background on her husband, their marriage, their faith, and their friends Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke (who lost their lives with Kelly).
I soon overcame my impatience, though, because she did a great job of showing that these men were the kind of men you would like to have as friends. She also showed that these men were true experts at mountain climbing, and that their deaths were not due to the carelessness of inexperience.
Their climb was difficult, indeed, taking them to a height of over two miles (11,000 feet), under torturous conditions. But, they had done such climbs many times before.
Karen writes very well. The book was an easy read, and she pulled me into the story quickly and kept me interested. She went into a lot of detail on her experience of the tragedy, including an accounting of being present during the rescue efforts.
And, after then describing how she dealt with the grief, she goes into exceptional detail in a reconstruction of how the tragedy happened.
Someone who has not lost a loved one might not understand how she could go into so much depth in covering how her husband died. I can tell you from personal experience, though, that you very much want to know everything that happened when you lose a loved one.
Up to a point, of course: you do not want to know if they died calling your name out, wondering why you could not prevent them from dying, wondering where you were, what was happening … That is something you think about, but really do not want to know.
But, you want to know as much else as you can. I recall spending a lot time going through Vickie’s hospital records and then getting one of her doctors to walk me through exactly what happened.
Similarly, Karen went into great detail to piece together exactly what happened to Kelly, Brian, and Jerry. She even used his recovered cell phone and camera, along with all of the emails between them when they were planning the climb. She talked with the rescuers and was a very good “detective” in piecing the events together.
I was amazed that Karen did not blame anyone for the tragedy. She did not blame the rescue team for not being “quick enough,” she did not blame God, and it seems she did not blame herself. I think this is something other mourners can learn from her. It is natural to want to assign blame. I initially wanted to blame Vickie’s doctors.
I certainly blamed God. And, I especially blamed myself for not being able to prevent her from dying. Such feelings of guilt and blame are destructive, though, and Karen shows that you can avoid it. I applaud her for that.
Karen’s ability to do this may have been related to her deep faith.
Speaking of her faith, I am pleased for her that she was able to keep it throughout the ordeal and its aftermath. Not everyone can.
My faith was shattered when Vickie died, and it took a long while to rebuild it, only to have it crumble again, and again. Now I fear it is like Humpty Dumpty in that the pieces cannot be put back together again. So, I am glad for Karen that she kept her faith … it can make a lot of difference in the grief.
I hope she is able to continue to retain it. She wrote the book only a year and a half after the tragedy, so she still has a lot of grief to go through.
Should you buy this book? If you have lost someone very close to you, my view is that this book might do you some good.
I cannot guarantee that it will. We all handle the loss of a loved one differently, but we can all learn from each other.
I think we can learn from Karen that you can keep your faith, even through the worst of tragedies. And, we can all learn that we can bring some good out of the loss of a loved one, by honoring them.
Karen did this through writing a book that honored her husband, and his friends Brian and Jerry. I honored Vickie through donations and through sharing my heart’s story with others. We cannot offset such tragedies, but we can bring some good from them. If we try.