Book Talk: *This Life Is In Your Hands*, by Melissa Coleman

Cover of THIS LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS, via harpercollins.com

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone
Melissa Coleman (Facebook)
Harper Perennial (2012), trade paperback (ISBN 0061958336 / 9780061958335)
Nonfiction/memoir, 352 pages
Source: purchased e-book (ISBN 9780062807355)
Reason for reading: personal (recommended by Kim)

Opening lines (from the Prologue): “We must have asked our neighbor Helen to read our hands that day. Her own hands were the color of onion skins, darkened with liver spots, and ever in motion. Writing, digging, picking, chopping. Opening kitchen cabinets painted with Dutch children in bright embroidered dresses and painted shoes. Taking out wooden bowls and handing them to my mother, Sue, to put on the patio for lunch.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
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. Coleman’s searing chronicle tells the true story of her upbringing on communes and sustainable farms along the rugged Maine coastline in the 1970’s, embedded within a moving, personal quest for truth that her experiences produced.

Comments: It’s taken a few decades for the “organic” lifestyle to work its way into the mainstream, but during the last ten years or so, the desire to eat foods that have been produced in a sustainable, low-tech way seems to have become much more widespread, and the producers and consumers of these foods don’t seem to be viewed so much as crunchy, hippie-ish fringe-dwellers these days. Having said that, the movement has honest roots among crunchy hippie fringe-dwellers, and Melissa Coleman’s family were some of the people who planted those roots (pun intended, for the record). In her memoir, This Life Is In Your Hands, Coleman takes readers to Greenwood Farm on the Maine coast, the pioneering community where her father worked to advance sustainable agriculture…and where her family imploded.

In some respects, Greenwood Farm would seem to be an idyllic place to experience one’s childhood, particularly during the short and fertile New England summers. Melissa and her sisters could, quite literally, run around naked all day long, and they had the proverbial “village” of caretakers at hand in Greenwood Farm’s “apprentices”–college and graduate students who came to work and learn from Melissa’s father, Eliot, and who became an extended family. The less-than-idyllic part was that the Coleman children couldn’t always count on their own parents. Eliot’s first devotion was to the farm, even at, ironically, the risk of his own health; the girls’ mother Sue was, all too often, just overwhelmed by the challenges of their everyday lives. The “pioneering” of the Colemans and their associates went all the way–they lived without electricity and indoor plumbing in small houses they built themselves.

I was quite intrigued by the fact that Eliot and Sue both came from fairly privileged backgrounds–particularly on Eliot’s side, where there are some names straight out of the Preppy Handbook–and in choosing this “simple,” “good” life for their family, they also chose extreme poverty. In some ways, there are similarities to Melissa Coleman’s story and that of Jeannette Walls’ family in The Glass Castle, but Melissa’s parents chose to work a lot harder. Still, it’s the rejection of a certain form of privilege that interests me, because in many ways, the products of the lifestyle that the Colemans chose instead remain most readily available to the privileged, even now.

But Melissa Coleman was a child during the years at Greenwood Farm, and it’s her evocation of the wonders and feelings of childhood that make 
This Life Is In Your Hands  such compelling reading. The adults in her life are frequently portrayed as seen through a child’s eyes, which makes the effects on that child when they really don’t live up to being adults that much more devastating. Without much exposure to other influences, children can be pretty accepting that whatever they know as “normal” is “the norm,” but they may still have an innate sense of when the world around them feels wrong. Coleman conveys that well; reading her story, I had the feeling early on that things wouldn’t quite work out, but I was completely surprised by the event that ultimately undid the family at Greenwood Farm.

An ultimately sympathetic relating of an unusually challenging personal history, This Life Is In Your Hands is a memoir worth getting into your hands.

Rating: 4/5

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