Release Date: April 10, 2012
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Non-Fiction; Memoir
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: In the fall of 1968, Melissa Coleman’s parents pack their VW truck and set out to forge a new existence on a rugged coastal homestead. Inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible Living the Good Life, Eliot and Sue build their own home by hand, live off the crops they grow, and establish a happy family with Melissa and her two sisters. They also attract national media and become icons of the back-to-the-land farming movement, but the pursuit of a purer, simpler life comes at a price. In the wake of a tragic accident, idealism gives way to human frailty, and by the fall of 1978, Greenwood Farm is abandoned. The search to understand what happened is at the heart of this luminous, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive memoir.
My Thoughts: This Life is in Your Hands is a fascinating, mesmerizing and beautifully written story about author Melissa Coleman’s childhood growing up on the self-sufficient, back-to-nature farm and homestead her parents built, from the ground up, with their own hands. Melissa relates in a readable and authentic voice how her parents became homesteaders and turned a farm into their livelihood in the opening chapter of her memoir. Ms. Coleman explains that her parents came from middle-class loving families but chafed at the expectations placed on them, preferring the outdoors and simpler, freer lifestyles. She describes how her parents met at Franconia College when her mother was a sophomore and her father was teaching Spanish. There was an instant attraction between they as well as a shared mentality for an independent, healthy life away from society’s clutches. Ms. Coleman explains, in her straightforward writing, that Eliot and Sue’s decision to become homesteaders and farmers wasn’t rash. They’d lived and even worked, in Eliot’s case, in ’modern’ society and wanted something different.
There’s no judgment in Ms. Coleman’s voice as she relays that the farm began as a kind of experiment her parents went into somewhat blind but with ample guidance. They loved health food and healthy eating and were angered by the abundance of packaged, processed foods in the supermarket and fast-food restaurants. Ms. Coleman explains in some detail how, in one of the few health food stores in the New Hampshire-Vermont area, Eliot discovered a book that would change their lives. In Living the Good Life: How to Live Simply and Sanely in a Troubled World by Scott and Helen Nearing, a couple who left New York City to become homesteaders and turn a farm into their livelihood, Eliot and Sue found a way of life to embrace. Like the Nearings, who’d wanted to live a healthy lifestyle independent of the economy and, what they saw as, an unethical society, Eliot and Sue wanted to get away from reliance on modern conveniences and society‘s restrictions. Ms. Coleman deliberately points out that her parents weren‘t looking for a hippie lifestyle, their interest didn‘t lie in drugs or communes. They subscribed to a philosophy similar to Henry David Thoreau’s “to live deliberately“. Living the Good Life became the Coleman’s bible and their guide in this new life.
Ms. Coleman writes about how ‘the experiment’ began in the Fall of 1968 when Eliot and Sue moved to the sixty acres they’d purchased from the Nearings in Cape Rosier, Maine. Eliot quickly built the small, simple and sufficient house Melissa, 3 months away from being a baby in her mama’s arms, was born in and lived in until she was 9-years old. The closest neighbors were the Nearings who would figure prominently in Eliot and Sue’s life for many years.
Once she has set the foundation for their way of life, Ms. Coleman describes extensively, how her parents built the farm and took care of themselves, each other and their family. The land needed to be cleared of trees which became firewood to use in winter and tree stumps, cultivated for the garden which would supply the majority of their food and a water source as close by as possible had to be created. Additionally, there were many, many smaller but just as important daily tasks to be done, including making and storing food in the cellar for winter. Self-sufficient farming is hard, back-breaking work much of the time but Ms. Coleman tells, with vividly detailed descriptions, how the labor was balanced out with the plentiful rewards, including fresh vegetables and beautiful vistas, of her family’s lifestyles. She also describes extensively how her father becomes so proficient in self-sufficient farming that he eventually becomes a ‘minor celebrity’ of this lifestyle for to people with similar interest.
Ms. Coleman covers a lot of ground in her memoir but it doesn’t feel that way while reading the book. It’s apparent she did a lot of research because she ties in current events from the 1970s, the prevailing thoughts and opinions of society as well as the attitude of the townspeople towards her parents and the Nearings lifestyle. Ms. Coleman adeptly providing an authentic, informed look at life on the Coleman’s farm during this time discussing not only the things her parents had to consider and cope with while building and maintaining the farm but why this kind of lifestyle caught on and became popular with a segment of society at the time.
I most enjoyed the passages in the book where Ms. Coleman specifically talks about her parents who sound like fascinating people. Her parents are intriguing and have quite a bit of ambition and ingenuity. Ms. Coleman’s father, Eliot, is an intelligent, hard-working, ambitious man deeply in love with his family and self-sufficient farming. He learned a lot about farming from reading numerous books as well as from trial-and-error and regularly worked 16-hour days. Even being diagnosed with Graves disease didn’t slow him down. Her mother is quieter and more reserved and, like many women, worries a lot. She, too, worked hard gardening, cooking, making and storing food and caring for the children. Ms. Coleman obviously loves her parents but she doesn’t shy away from discussing their flaws, issues and occasionally disappointing behavior, such as their failure to establish boundaries for their children. As glorious as their life often is, it’s also quite stressful which takes its toll on her parents relationship. Ms. Coleman implies more than outright admits her awareness at a young age that her parents were having problems. When young Melissa wishes for the silence between her parents to end, I felt tears welling.
It was easy to get absorbed into this memoir. Even after just a few chapters, I was so lost in the pages, I forgot that the Coleman’s life wasn’t a typical one. Ms. Coleman’s description of her experience attending school brought me back to reality and impressed upon me how differently her family lived. Ms. Coleman writes with refreshing candor how when she started school she realized that she was different than other children. She relates simple differences such as most of the kids ate white bread sandwiches made with flat meat while when Melissa had a sandwich, hers was homemade, heavy dark bread spread with peanut butter. She was the only child with half an avocado and her treats, rather than Hostess cakes or chips were sunflower seeds and raisins. She recalls more important differences including she was expected to wear underwear everyday and, for the first time, she learned how to use an indoor toilet. Melissa was fascinated with the flushing of the toilet, seeing the disappearance of the water down the hole and its reappearance as a “miracle”. Melissa also loved the feel of the toilet paper, a novelty not used in their outhouse at home, so much she often used too much and clogged the toilet. Ms. Coleman also tells us she wasn’t so impressed with the school’s insistence that she wear shoes.
There’s a blurb on the back cover of This Life Is In Your Hands from the New York Times, stating, “A story so nuanced that it would be a disservice to reveal what was in store. If you want to know what happened, read it for yourself.” Ms. Coleman has written a captivating story about her parents attempt to create a more simple, purer life. When tragedy occurs some wonder if that‘s the price for such a life. I’m not sure that reading this memoir answers that question. Decide for yourself by reading Ms. Coleman’s beautiful and heart-breaking story. Her honest, inviting prose, her vivid, beautiful descriptions of the world she saw everyday and the daily joys and sorrows, struggles and celebrations of her family’s life tells a rich and powerful story. This is a memoir you don’t want to miss. I have barely skimmed the surface of the wonders and pains in store for anyone who reads this book. There is so much more in these pages and much that is relevant to what is happening in our society today. I hope you pick up this book and get as much or more out of it as I have.
See Melissa Coleman’s Website and Facebook page.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review This Life Is In Your Hands and to Harper Perennial for a copy of this book.