Book World: ‘This Life Is in Your Hands’ examines back-to-land movement

April 24, 2012

When she started elementary school, Melissa Coleman was confronted with a novelty: a toilet. “It was a miracle to watch the water swirl down the hole and then fill up again,” she writes in her memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands (Harper Perennial, $15.99). Coleman’s parents, pioneers of the back-to- ­the-land movement, had raised her not to care about such matters of personal hygiene. Coleman used an outhouse, with dried peat moss for toilet paper, or simply let nature take its course in the fields of Greenwood Farm, where her family lived on the coast of Maine.

This was the early ’70s, and Coleman’s parents, Eliot and Sue, had turned their backs on their upper-middle-class upbringing — and modern life generally. They built their own house and lived without plumbing, electricity or a telephone. Eliot worked in the fields, shunning the use of commercial fertilizers and championing “plant positive” farming, in which compost and manure are used to replenish soil. Greenwood Farm became a model for small-scale sustainable farming. Today, Eliot Coleman is a well-known author on the circuit with Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. (He is now married to Barbara Damrosch, a writer whose work appears in The Washington Post.)

Though far from a revenge memoir, Melissa Coleman’s book offers a darker picture of life on Greenwood Farm. In her telling, amid the natural beauty and the off-the-grid freedoms, was constant fear: “Despite the appearance of bounty, we were always on the verge of not having enough.” Everything, she writes, depended on her parents’ “emotional investment in our lifestyle.” But the labor of farming and raising children took its toll. “Mama was doing the kinds of housework many women believed they’d left behind with their virginity in the 1960s,” Coleman notes. As her father grew more successful, her mother found it harder to fend off bouts of depression and fits of anger. Then Coleman’s younger sister, Heidi, drowned in a pond at age 3, and the family began to fall apart. “Darkness fell on our little house in the woods with a final sigh,” Coleman writes. The family left Greenwood Farm in 1978, but not together. Coleman says that writing “This Life Is in Your Hands” was a cathartic experience. Although parts of the book lack the polish that might have come from further introspection, Coleman’s story is a fascinating look at the roots of the organic movement as well as a cautionary tale about the limits of idealism and the importance of forgiveness.

From our previous reviews:

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury, $15), which won a National Book Award, is a “trim, fiercely poetic novel” that “takes place in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Miss., in the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina,” wrote Ron Charles. Without a hint of pretension,” Ward “evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy.”


“This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak” by Melissa Coleman. (HarperPerennial/HarperCollins)

Chris Cleave praised Amy Waldman’s The Submission (Picador, $15), a novel that examines the controversies surrounding the public memorialization of Sept. 11, 2001. The book, Cleave wrote, is “a coherent, timely and fascinating examination of a grieving America’s relationship with itself.”

In One Hundred Names for Love (Norton, $15.95), Diane Ackerman writes about the aftermath of a stroke that left her husband, the writer Paul West, unable to process language. “At once sobering and encouraging,” noted Heller McAlpin, the book is “a tale of perseverance and accommodation, and an ode to playfulness and the brain’s plasticity.”

Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles (Vintage, $17.95), a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, is an “ambitious, empathetic and sometimes lyrical” account of the Loyalist exiles who fled the North American colonies after the American Revolution, according to Pauline Maier.

Nothing Daunted (Scribner, $15), by Dorothy Wickenden, tells the story of two plucky Victorian women — one of them Wickenden’s grandmother — who left New York society for the wilds of the West. The book, which weaves the personal and the historical, is “a brilliant little gem of Americana,” Marie Arana wrote.

Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl (Broadway, $14) is an “honest and amusing medical memoir” and a “primer on food allergies,” in which Sandra Beasley deftly weaves her personal experience with “the history and science” of the affliction, according to Suzanne Allard Levingston.

Krug writes The Post’s monthly New in Paperback column.

Nora Krug is a Book World editor and a MisFits columnist.
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