Never Broken: Songs are Only Half the Story
By Jewel; Blue River Press; 2015; $27.50
"My name is Jewel Kilcher and I am an Alaskan." Thus begins chapter one of the door-stopper memoir by the singer-songwriter from Homer, "discovered" while living in her car in San Diego, recipient of four Grammy nominations, seller of 30 million albums, author of a best-selling poetry collection and now 41-year-old mother of a 4-year-old, intent on sharing her life story to help others struggling with issues of self-worth.
Although in her folk-pop-country singing career, Jewel has been known by her first name alone, most Alaskans probably know that she came from Alaska and is a third-generation member of the Swiss-immigrant Kilcher family that homesteaded in Homer and still largely resides there. Sometimes compared to the Von Trapp family from "The Sound of Music," the family begun by Yule and Ruth Kilcher in the 1940s was and is known for its musical talent. Her mother's side of the family — the Carrolls — are also early Homer residents.
Today's Alaskans might be better acquainted with the Kilchers as the stars of the "reality" TV show "Alaska: The Last Frontier." Jewel's father Atz and brother Atz Lee are two of the principal characters, often seen chasing after cattle, shooting at wild animals and otherwise living a homestead life in which their survival depends (supposedly) on killing that week's bear, deer (on trips to Kodiak), porcupine or fish.
Jewel has always worked her Alaska origins into her story, and fans have been charmed by the idea of a "pioneer girl" who grew up using an outhouse and riding horses through a wild landscape.
Now Jewel's delivered the other half of the story, which is far less romantic.
"Never Broken" is essentially a tell-all celebrity book, exposing the persons who wronged the author along her way and thanking those she calls her "Every Day Angels." It's also something of a self-help book, dedicated to "anyone who is struggling in darkness, seeking to know their light." The author has clearly been through therapy, and the book is her distillation and analysis of the circumstances that challenged, scarred and shaped her. If it's full of bromides about "knowing oneself" and "letting go of shame," it's also generally sweet-natured and forgiving, positive in its approach to living a meaningful life.
Jewel's fans, who know her from her music and the mythology surrounding her Alaska background and rise to fame, will learn of a more complex person and situation. Young people with musical ambitions might learn something about the drive it takes to succeed. Alaskans who may know her family members or recall seeing Jewel perform with her parents as a child might especially enjoy the first sections about growing up in Alaska and what that contributed to Jewel's success. Living without television or access to much of popular culture and lacking formal music training surely helped the child barroom singer and yodeler develop a unique folk style that brought her to the attention of people in California. So did the independence and do-it-yourself attitude that came from growing up in Alaska -- the same qualities we see many of our young people successfully take into the larger world.
Jewel holds back little, and much of her story is told with great candor. Her mother left her father and three young children when Jewel was 8, and her father, she tells us, was physically abusive. Singing in bars as a child was not a particularly wholesome activity, although the experience trained Jewel to avoid alcohol, drugs and danger.
She was determined to "not be a statistic." By age 15, she was on her own and wrangled a scholarship to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She stole things and hitchhiked through Mexico. She sang on street corners and started writing her own songs. At 18, as she headed to Colorado to live with a school friend, she "was a kid on a dog sled in the Arctic Circle on my way to sing for Inuit villagers in the land of the midnight sun, a traveler in the desert running mules for the Havasupai Indian, a kid in the slums of Anchorage, a bar singer, a graduate of a prestigious fine arts school, a scared girl, a brave girl, a student of nature -- all these impossible things were strung on the same thread that was me."
A central figure in the story -- in her life -- was the mother who abandoned her and whose love she clearly sought. The mother as portrayed here might best be characterized as "flaky," channeling voices and wisdom from the past and convincing Jewel that they were "two souls in the same body." For someone as street-savvy as Jewel apparently was, she was remarkably blind to her mother's faults and manipulations. Once Jewel was signed to a record label, her mother became her manager and lived "like a rock star" on Jewel's earnings. She also poured money into all sorts of questionable enterprises and brought Jewel -- who had never even had a bank account -- to financial ruin.
Jewel today is estranged from her mother, friendly with her reformed father, divorced from the rodeo cowboy she married in 2008, a mother, and still a singer and songwriter. She wrote "Never Broken," she says, to share her journey to happiness and to establish herself as the "unbroken" and kind woman she wants her son to know.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."