What is the This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone about?
In the fall of 1968 Melissa’s parents Elliot and Sue Coleman buy a small piece of property on a remote peninsula on the coast of Maine from Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible Living the good Life how to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. Their dream is to build a home with their own hands then live off the land. They become part of the back-to-land movement of the 70’s. All does not go well and eventually their family becomes undone. Melissa’s memoir explores her early childhood growing up on the homestead while learning to better understand her past.
Motivation for reading:
I grew up on a dairy farm in rural western Wisconsin in the 70’s. When I graduated from high school my goal was to get as far away from the farm as possible. My husband on the other hand is an avid fly fisherman, loves the outdoors and dreams of owning a log home on a couple of acres in Wisconsin's driftless area in our retirement years. I thought reading this book might help me determine whether I was judging my former life too harshly.
I was not disappointed with this book. Like Kim, I found it to be an engrossing read and would categorize it as a nonfiction book that reads like fiction. Coleman’s story reminded me of Jeanette Well’s book The Glass Castle especially in her ability to write about her parents without bitterness.
I was impressed with how the book accurately portrays the difficulties that come with living off the land:
The reality of this way of life is that you have got to keep at it even when you don’t feel like it. Otherwise you won’t make it. It’s no life for dabblers. You have to dig it wholeheartedly, for if you don’t you just simply won’t be happy nor successful at what you do. (Pg. 111)Coleman also does an excellent job of describing how isolating this life can be. In an article featured in the New York Times covering the Coleman’s reporter Roy Reed wrote:
“Self-sufficiency proves too difficult for many. Marital stresses, for example, are exaggerated in isolated areas around the country.” (Pg. 205)I was happy to see her mention the problems of living without health insurance. Many of the books I’ve read (both fiction and nonfiction) covering “dropping out” or “living off the land” fail to discuss medical insurance. Elliott Coleman develops Graves' disease despite his strict vegetarian diet. Lack of medical insurance delays treatment and his health and stamina continue to decline. An underlying fear develops - what happens if Elliot becomes too sick to work.
I came away with a better understanding of organic farming.
Elliot Coleman ultimately becomes an organic farming guru. Here is one of his early influences:
It wasn't until the second summer of 1970 that I really began to understand gardening. That was the summer I read Sir Albert’s classic, An Agricultural Testament, in which Howard claims that if plants are healthy there is no role for insects. (Pg. 66)I won’t reveal what happens, but will say I did shed a tear of two.
If you are interested in self-sufficiency or the homestead movement and enjoy a good story this book is for you. It would also make a good selection for a nonfiction book club. My only criticism is Coleman’s use of the first person in writing about events and conversations that occurred before she was born and when she was very young. Plus, her thoughts are too advanced for her age. In addition, I would have preferred more analysis of her parent’s actions and a discussion of her life after she left the homestead. Perhaps she will write a sequel.
As to my own recollections of the farming life – I believe they are accurate. I foresee myself visiting western Wisconsin for a vacation or two, but I will never again live there permanently.
Have you ever considered leaving the corporate world to live off the land?
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