Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman

We have a cottage that has been in my family for almost 100 years now. It has only had modern conveniences for fewer than 20 years. So when we spent time there when I was a child, we had no electricity and no phone. It was a throwback to an older time. But I learned a lot, sewing, quilting, basket-making, and so on, spending weeks without all the technology that people have become accustomed to these days both as a crutch and a convenience. The one thing we didn't do, though, was grow our own food. We don't live there year round so there was never any suggestion that we live a self-sustaining life. The upkeep and maintenance on the cottage was constant enough and hard enough. Unlike our summer vacation and its annual but brief, wonderful novelty, Melissa Coleman and her family lived without modern conveniences, working toward self-sustainability, and farming organically all the time as part of the forefront of the back to the land, homesteader movement of the late sixties and early seventies as she recounts in this detailed memoir of their time at Greenwood Farm.

Ranging from her parents' upbringings in regular upper middle class families, how they met, their courtship, and what led them to reject the lifestyles in which they were raised, embracing instead the mantra of the homesteading lifestyle as described by Helen and Scott Nearing in their groundbreaking work: Living the Good Life for the nine years they spent on the coast of Maine working the land and living off the grid as much as possible, Coleman details the rewards and the hardships of the life their family chose to lead. Eliot and Sue Coleman were in the vanguard of the back to the land movement buying sixty acres adjacent to the Nearings and living by the tenets proposed in their book. But this life wasn't easy by any means. And the locals remained suspicious, keeping the tiny homesteading community (several others eventually joined them) separate and essentially isolated from the townsfolk. For a child, the life was both idyllic and lonely. There was not much adult supervision at all given the demands of a working farm but Coleman and her younger sister missed out on a lot of the loving attention that supervision also contains within it.

As the Colemans' dream of creating a self-sustaining farm starts to come together over the years, their marriage frays under the stresses of their work and the compromises that inevitably mar their utopia. Sue "checks out" on her kids and clearly suffers from post-partum depression after all three of her daughters are born. She doesn't like the advent of the residential volunteers, anxious to learn from Eliot, especially given his rising notoriety as an organic food advocate and sustainable farming expert, and their impact on the small, closed society of the farm. Eliot, on the other hand, holds fast to his dream, willing to make certain compromises (a vegetarian who eschews meat for both health and moral reasons willing to kill newborn billy goats because they add nothing to the farm) but not other more vital ones (he believes his diet alone, already lacking in some nutrients, can cure his Graves' disease). He starts to travel more frequently, leaving the burden of the farm on Sue's less capable shoulders.

Coleman doesn't shy away from acknowledging the flaws in her parents' dream but she doesn't go into detail about the small things that contributed to the tension and the stress and the disillusionment that were slowly rending their family apart even before the tragedy that finally shattered their dream forever. She foreshadows the tragedy right from the beginning of the book and so its eventual advent is not a surprise but a culmination of the tension that has been slowly rising throughout the book. She is most adept at the descriptions of nature and of her own childhood experiences here. Although she has done research and conducted interviews with others to fill in the gaps of what she wouldn't or couldn't know at the time, including her parents' early years, the way that these portions are presented as if she was actually present is a bit jarring on the reader and certainly come off as idealized. In addition, the ending of the book is quite abrupt with an epilogue that admits to the book as her way to try and make sense of her early years and especially the accident but it doesn't answer any questions about how her life then really affects her life now and what she may have taken away from the lessons she learned.

Coleman has woven a loose history of the beginnings of the organic food movement, the drive to eat locally (although how local avocados, common to her school lunches, are to the Maine coast is rather questionable), homesteading, and living gently on the land in with her family's story. And sometimes the details of the history overwhelm the sadder but more engaging family story. A tale of a dream and a family that couldn't be sustained despite the best of intentions, this is nevertheless an interesting story. Living a lifestyle that most of us would never consider, even as we incorporate certain of its tenets into our life now more and more, the compromises and the failures and the ultimate, terrible price the Coleman family paid, Melissa Coleman has afforded readers an intimate glimpse into a hoped for paradise that never quite achieved its name.

For more information about Melissa Coleman and the book visit her website or like her page on Facebook. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. My family camped "in the rough" when I was a kid - pitch a tent, carry in the water/food you'll need, dig your own bathroom, etc. - so I can identify with some of that lifestyle. Like you though, we didn't have to raise our own food. Still, I think I'd appreciate the struggles this family faced - I'm definitely looking forward to reading it!

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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