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This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak

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“Lyrical and down-to-earth, wry and heartbreaking, This Life Is in Your Hands is a fascinating and powerful memoir. Melissa Coleman doesn’t just tell the story of her family’s brave experiment and private tragedy; she brings to life an important and underappreciated chapter of our recent history.” —Tom Perrotta 

In a work of power and beauty reminiscent of Tobias Wolff, Jeannette Walls, and Dave Eggers, Melissa Coleman delivers a luminous, evocative childhood memoir exploring the hope and struggle behind her family's search for a sustainable lifestyle. With echoes of The Liars’ Club and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, 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.

352 pages, Paperback

First published March 31, 2011

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Melissa Coleman

6 books16 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 471 reviews
Profile Image for Vicki.
857 reviews60 followers
July 3, 2011
2.5 stars. Better than okay, but not quite ... well, just not quite. Firstly, I would hesitate to even call this a memoir. It affected the fiction of being from Melissa's POV throughout, but that was a very awkward fit for most of the book. Writing about how her mom's pupils contracted the first time she saw her dad? Recounting the Nearing's reactions to finding out that her mom was pregnant? And even later, when she actually existed in the timeline, it really didn't ring true. Was 4 year old Melissa really meditating on the fact that tree roots spread below her in a near-mirror image to the branches above her while she lay in the woods? Was her first reaction to a snail shell really the miracle that the curve of the spiral was exactly like a fiddlehead fern? I mean, these are clearly the musings of a later Melissa Coleman, and normally that'd be fine, but the way that the book was framed kept pulling me out to shake my head at the central conceit: that this is an actual memoir. Coming, you know, from her memory.

So what was it? Kind of a joint biography of her parents, using source materials like her mom's journals and interviews with people that stayed on the farms in those years, and also her memories. Only the last 15 pages or so seem to authentically come from her own recollections and pertain to her own experiences as she experienced them, as opposed to her "experiences" in the sense that, yes, she was there on that same farm at the same time as these happenings. And as a joint biography it was interesting, if a little self-important. Her parents were on the leading edge of the back-to-the-land movement (though you could be forgiven for thinking her father had invented organic farming singlehandedly, based on the first half of the book), and their struggles and successes are compelling. She overcontextualizes in a way that could feel condescending (any time her parents did something hippieish, she not only describes it, but then reminds the reader that this was in the same year that [X] happened, and their hippieish action was both BRAVE and COUNTERCULTURE and very much OUTSIDE OF THE MAINSTREAM. We know. You're writing about the 70s, not the Middle Ages. You can assume some familiarity), and the pages upon pages of describing springtime plants coming back to life felt in need of editing by the third year in a row. Also, wow with the name dropping in the last quarter of the book -- especially since these are still just names of people that are only recognizable to a very small circle. "So and so was at the same conference ... you might know him from his successful heirloom seed catalogue?" Holy Hipster Memoir, Batman.

Obviously the big moment in the book is when her little sister dies. Which is horrible and heartbreaking. And as much as I spent the first 2/3ds of the book thinking that she should've reimagined it as a powerful short story or as source material for a novel, I did think she handled this part of the book well: it was better paced, felt more honest, and felt like a story that needed telling rather than just a tale that I might as well keep reading.

I guess my takeaway is that if you're very interested in homesteading, off-the-gridding, self-sufficiency, or 60s/70s counterculture movements, this book might be worth your time. For me, and I do have a greater than passing interest in most of those things, it was just so-so. I don't regret having read it, but I can't think of anyone I'd recommend it to either. So ... I guess that's my helpful review? :/
362 reviews2 followers
August 8, 2011
I have a distaste for “memoirs” which impute thoughts to other people, recite conversations the author could not have remembered or heard, etc.- I’d prefer it if it were called a fictionalized memoir or biography upfront. So that’s part of my problem here but I also found the writing unpolished and the theme shaky. It felt rather like Coleman was blaming her parents’ homesteading for their marital problems, her father’s hyperthyroidism, and the death of her sister, which was a bit much... yes, they made untraditional life choices, but bad things do in fact happen to people who work 9 to 5 jobs in the suburbs too.

It does provide insight into the daily lives of the famed Nearings and Elliot Coleman, which gardening and self-reliance geeks might find interesting. However, in her attempt to explain just who the Nearings were, she spent a lot of time talking about their histories and political work- dull for those of us who already knew all that, and I’m not sure how it was really relevant to her story. Unless she wanted to say HEY I WAS AROUND PEOPLE WHO WERE REALLY IMPORTANT, which doesn’t seem important in the context of a story that’s focused on familial relationships.

I fear that what happened here is that an adequate but not gifted writer tried to do too much, and in doing so failed to successfully accomplish what she wanted. Much of the writing had a magazine-feature feel to it which wasn’t appropriate for a novel or for a personal memoir. I hope, at least, that the research and writing was cathartic to the author.
Profile Image for Marjorie.
107 reviews6 followers
April 16, 2011
I haven't read other reviews yet, so I may be the only person who is not wild about this book. Here are things that I thought made it worth reading: learning more about the origins of the health food movement; meeting some of the characters; reliving the sixties and the seventies. However, aside from the fact that I can't imagine that the author's education led her to write things like "a couple days (weeks, months) later" (yes, I know that stylistically that usage is becoming more accepted, and I guess I am a usage prig), there were some essential things going on in the book that to me were very disturbing. I admire that Melissa has been able to get her life together so well after a decidedly problematical childhood, filled as it may have been with groovy moments.

This is a tale that is a very old one. Utopian communities like the one the Colemans were looking to establish (at first for themselves, and then with others) have been around for centuries if not as long as humans have been alive and thought about how to live more idealistically. Many of them were established around this period of time, and some probably are still in existence. Having just returned from Salt Lake City, I would suggest that the Mormon community is an example of a Utopian community that has thrived. Upstate New York in the 19th and early 20th century was a hotbed of these kinds of communities. During the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam era, many of us became disillusioned with the way in which American ideals were not being practiced 'on the ground'. The fifties and sixties, characterized by the growth of suburbs and simultaneously the earliest beginnings of the women's movement, were seen by many as a period of mindless conformity. This seems to have been the case with the Colemans, who believed that they could be self-sufficient and not have to live like their parents, and that they could sustain a healthier lifestyle. As with many things, their hopes are to be admired. However, when you add children into the picture, life can get hard for idealists having to grow their own food. (I'm reminded of trips to pioneer cemeteries where many children die at a very young age.) While their intentions may have been the best, in reality there were (in my lay opinion) serious mental health issues that were not addressed that had serious, serious, tragic consequences. Melissa Coleman is careful not to point the finger of blame on her parents. Heidi's death could have occurred in any family. However, there were enough instances in Melissa's descriptions of their family's life to suggest that neither parent had that gut-level sense of "where are the kids" enough that could protect them sufficiently. And, in actuality, Melissa talks about how her mother actually 'checked out' even while she was supposed to be caring for her kids. This, among other behaviors, leads me to think that Sue was severely depressed much of the time and rather than encourage her to get help, Eliot often took off rather than give her the help that she needed. As is often the case, their extended families seemed concerned but unable to intervene sufficiently. It would be very interesting to hear the story from the point of view of the author's aunts and uncles.
I've been married long enough and I've been a parent long enough to know that people change, accidents happen, and no matter how hard we try sometimes we can't fix things. However, the solutions that were proposed in this family ("I don't really love you any more, take one of the kids and go live with your parents") were just downright wrong. Or worse - "I don't love you and I am leaving you here on this farm with the children and no money." And how terrible when Melissa wakes up one day and realizes that there were NO parents there to take care of her, just the 'interns' who were living on the property and helping with the farm.
Unfortunately, my impatience - that isn't even a strong enough word - with the behavior of these parents seriously interfered with my ability to appreciate the book. From the beginning, you knew that something bad was going to happen to one of the children - most likely Heidi - and the lack of oversight of the children came through loud and clear. They may have been loving parents, and had a vision of feeding their children way better than with supermarket food, but there were definitely some missing pieces that would have benefited from some good counseling and parenting classes. I will concede that at this period of time, postpartum depression counseling and good medications were not readily available. But Coleman's mother seems to have had more than just a bad case of the blues, and her father seems to have been lost in the dream.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Amanda Hogg.
6 reviews2 followers
August 19, 2014
On particularly smoggy LA days when it takes me over an hour to drive 17.5 miles, I sometimes dream about ditching the city and hauling ass to the country to live off the land. These daydreams take me to Sonoma, Napa - somewhere close enough to a big city where drinking a glass of wine at lunch with your garden salad is normal. Rarely, however, do my fantasies to farm take me to Maine. In This Life is in Your Hands, a couple, the author's parents, do just this.

Melissa Coleman writes about growing up in the 1970s with parents whose dedication to self-sufficiency threatens not only their relationship but also their family's lives. Between harsh Maine winters and the backbreaking labor necessary during the growing months, it's easy to see how child rearing falls to the wayside.

Coleman does an equally good job of describing homesteading as she does describing her parents' crumbling relationship. She writes about the process of ordering seeds to getting them to sprout in frosty March to harvesting the fruit in summer. She makes you think you're there with her digging in the dirt, running through the brambles of blackberry bushes and lounging in the cool shade of the forest. She writes about canning and grinding grain for bread. These fertile descriptions contrast nicely with the threadbareness of how the Colemans actually live.

Profile Image for Jim Bronec.
61 reviews
June 7, 2012
When I first started farming organically someone gave me the book "living the Good Life" by Scott and Helen Nearing. It tells of there lives getting back to the land, living 100% off what they grow, and shunning themselves from most of modern day technology. I put it down half way thru because I felt them to be overbaring and judgemental in there assesment of the culture and in the promoting of their lifestyle. But most importantly I didn't believe they were being totally truthful. Turns out my feelings were correct. "This life is in your Hands" was written about Melissa Coleman's childhood and her families quest to life in community with and follow in the footsteps of the Nearings. It tells of the hardship that homesteading can play on a relationship and family. It is a well told story and pulls back the curtain on the tough life of eeking out a living off the land and all the emotional affects it can take on a family. Melissa Coleman is the daughter of Eliot Coleman who is one of the best writers on the technical aspect of organic farming. This story brings a truthful background to both the joys and pains of country living.
Profile Image for Deb.
128 reviews4 followers
June 3, 2012
Back in the 1960s and early 70s, my formative years, one of the countercultural threads running through the zeitgeist was a romantic back-to-the-land movement. I chose this book because back in those days my husband and I had fantasies of living "the good life" as defined by the movement evangelists, Scott and Helen Nearing, and this is the story of a young couple who really did it. Eliot Coleman and his wife Susan bought land adjacent to the Nearings' in Maine, and lived self-sufficiently off the farm they created. During this time they had three daughters, and this memoir is authored by the first-born, Melissa Coleman.

I'm not really revealing a spoiler to say that a tragedy will end this family's sojourn in Paradise. We learn that early on. That part of the story is heartbreaking and well presented; but even if it hadn't happened, we get the sense that the "good life" wasn't all that good, and that it would have ended eventually, at least for these people, anyway. For once-young dreamers like me, who wonder if an alternate life "off the grid" might have been more fulfilling, this story is a lesson in hard reality.

Coleman writes beautifully at times, especially when she immerses the narrative in an authentic childs'-eye view of life. But I have a problem with how she tells a story she admittedly doesn't fully remember in first person, or perhaps I should say in first child. Even scenes of her parents' lives before she was born are told in this same voice, and it is disconcerting. While she marvelously captures the childlike wonder of her remembered point of view, there are many parts of this story that need to be examined from an adult perspective, and I simply found the constant reference to "Mama" and "Papa" to be unnerving. Hard questions remain at the end. I got the strong impression that there are important things the author didn't tell us because she knew her parents, who are still living, would be reading her book.

But overall I enjoyed the book and recommend it to any corporate cubicle drone (like me)who ever dreamed of living closer to nature.
Profile Image for Katie.
1,105 reviews53 followers
December 9, 2011
I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir about homesteading in the 1960s-1970s, written by someone who was a child in the homesteading family. Even though homesteading and organic gardening are not particular interests of mine (although food "politics" is), I found this book completely engrossing. It was so lyrically and poetically written, especially for a non-fiction book. The writer has a real talent for gorgeous writing, and especially writing that evokes the feel of being out in nature. What a wonderful book to pick up during winter, since this writing in this book can make you feel like it's springtime and you're outside in a field with your face stuck in some fresh flowers.

I loved how the writing and the structure of the book was so closely tied to the seasons, just as one would imagine homesteaders' lives would be (as opposed to the rest of us, barely outside much of the time since we drive to our identical enclosed cubicles and then drive home! The weather has hardly an impact). Every year when springtime broke, the author would write again about the particular birds and flowers that would make their first appearance, and you could really see how the patterns of their lives shifted when the seasons changed. And every year when fall started to make its appearance, she would write about how that affected their lives and moods. During the summers they were REALLY busy, and during the winters they were sort of "hibernating" and eating their carefully preserved jars of fruit.

And of course, there's a lot more going on here... there is a family tragedy which is the main story arc of the book, as well as a continuously rotating large cast of characters that moved in and out of the story (it definitely had the feel of a commune). I found the whole thing fascinating--would definitely recommend to anyone.
Profile Image for McGuffy Morris.
Author 2 books19 followers
July 15, 2011

To say this book is a beautifully written memoir does not do it justice. Melissa Coleman tells the story of her parents and what moved them not to be hippies, but to be true back-to-nature farmers. They were not interested in the drug culture, altering their minds, or a commune way of life. They wanted only to provide a natural, simple, down to earth life for themselves and their family.

Following the example, of Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of Living the Good Life, Eliot and Sue Coleman forged out a sixty acre farm on coastal Maine. It is there they built their home, and then had first Melissa and later her sister, Heidi.

Melissa tells the story of her family, their farm and the simpler way of life they embraced. She writes of a childhood full of eating wild blueberries, running naked in the rain, making homemade bread, chopping wood and gathering seaweed. It is a full and happy life for the Coleman’s.

There comes a point though, when Melissa’s parent’s relationship is strained and pulled apart by outside influences and stresses. Not long after, the sudden tragic death of her three year old sister tears the family and all that it was, all that it stood for apart, leaving only broken dreams in its wake. Melissa is left to neighbors as her family disintegrates.

This book is Melissa Coleman’s search to sort through her families dreams, to make sense of what happened and why, how such beauty could have gone so awry. She looks to answer how one can find forgiveness when there is no actual blame. Truly, a thread of wisdom winds throughout her book, as she teaches us the price of sacrifice and the value of forgiveness.
Profile Image for Jennifer Kleffner.
61 reviews1 follower
December 5, 2013
Just finished this. Eliot Coleman, the father in this story, has written several books on organic gardening. He's kind of the "go to" guru for all things organic farming. I have one of his books on my bookshelf. Hence the interest.

Actually a difficult read for me. Had I been born a bit earlier, I could have been one of these back to the land 20 something hippies of the early 70's, convinced I could be totally self sufficient, living off the land. I don't know what was more disappointing. The fact that these two young people bonded over a dream and got married without really knowing each other, only to discover that they needed things from each other the other was never going to be able to supply, the fact that they decided to bring children into that mix, the childhood neglect (seriously, the kids were taking poops in the lettuce - gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "dirty hippie"), or that the Nearings, who lived next door and inspired many of these folks to return to the land (see the book "Living the Goodlife"), were actually supplementing their lifestyle with trust funds, tons of volunteer help, and their vegetarian diet with ice cream and B12 shots. A great lesson in remembering that we all draw our own lines in the sand. And then we sometimes choose to walk over them. Told with an unflinching yet fair look at all involved. What a heartbreak.
Profile Image for Melody.
2,623 reviews254 followers
January 17, 2014
This was a fascinating glimpse into the Back-To-The-Land movement of the late sixties/early seventies. I was on the very fringes of this, eating whole wheat spaghetti ("It's chocolate!" my dad would insist) and taking alfalfa tablets to ward off I have no idea what. We drank powdered milk, and we went to the bar for fresh squeezed carrot juice ("Sweet, isn't it?" asked my dad) after we'd ploughed up the little backyard for vegetable gardening. But we lived, nonetheless, in the city. I had a flush toilet and mostly store-bought clothes.

I was interested in Coleman's perspective, as she was raised at the epicenter of the movement. My complaints with the book are that her reconstructions are far too mature for the age she was at the time. I'd have liked an acknowledgement that they were reconstructions based on later conversations, or something. That being said, it was a fascinating look at a fascinating time. Coleman seems unable, here, to assign any culpability to her parents. It appears clear to me that they were at the very least, inattentive and more likely flat-out neglectful, being far too busy navel-gazing and field-handing to actually parent.

The writing was at times repetitive and at times a little purple for my taste. There were passages that just sang, too. Well worth reading, but uncomfortable for me.
Profile Image for Miri.
1,567 reviews64 followers
December 31, 2015
I received this book through Goodreads FirstReads.

The life the Coleman family lived is incredibly intriguing, and it was so interesting to read about the original "back-to-the-land" movement in the 1970s. After reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, I fell in love with the idea of raising and growing all your own food, and there's a part of me that loves the idea of homesteading as well--although after reading this book, I know for certain that I would never actually do it. The story of their farm life, with their neighbors and apprentices all working to bring together each aspect of it, is very unique.

The personal story of the family is tragic and much less fun to read. It's hard to imagine the kind of toll such a life would take on people's emotions, but even so, I couldn't help myself wanting to assign blame for the way their life fell apart. The contentment of their way of life doesn't mesh well with the tragedy in their home.

The story itself is fascinating, but I don't care much for the way Coleman writes. Her style is too flowery and wordy and completely overdone for my taste. All too frequently, sometimes twice in one page, I read sentences like these:

"The forest closed around us with the smells of cedar and spruce and the white of bunchberry dogwood flowers popping from the muted greens and browns. We hopscotched over the exposed roots and past the old log covered in wiry-green moss and an army of red-hatted British soldiers."

"I can see our two little figures hanging over the face of the curved green earth, the universe sighing above us, vast and unknown. The soil, forests, and waters held in them the promise of survival if we could learn their secrets, but pumping our legs together on the swing, Heidi and I hoped only to reach the sky."

They don't sound that bad on their own, but there are so many like these that I had to stop after two examples because I just couldn't decide which ones to share. It's all too much, tries too hard to be epic and ethereal and philosophical. As it is, it's an interesting story and definitely worth a read; but if it had been written by someone else, I think, I may have liked the book quite a bit more.
Profile Image for willaful.
1,155 reviews371 followers
May 20, 2011
3.5 stars. I won this from GoodReads.

This memoir hit me in a personal way, because I also grew up in the 70's with parents living out of the mainstream; for years I've been hungry for real depiction of what it was like, as opposed to the stereotypes we see in t.v. and movies. This Life is in Your Hands rang very true for me: the sometimes reckless idealism, the lack of boundaries, the passionate following of leaders with feet of clay. I think it's a pretty balanced portrayal, with a lot of attention paid to what was good and valuable about that time as well as its negative side.

Coleman puts herself into the minds of other people, writing their thoughts and feelings even about times before she was born or aware. This works well when she's writing about her parents but seemed awkward when she writes in a more romantic vein about other people. Towards the end, the book started to feel a little gossipy. But I loved the depiction of her father, whose initial desire for a simple, homesteading life grew into a lifelong passion for organic farming.
Profile Image for Kim Miller-Davis.
155 reviews10 followers
June 9, 2015
A beautifully told memoir of a family's journey back-to-the-land in Maine in the 1970s. Although written by the daughter of Eliot Coleman (known for his pioneering work with organic farming), it is less a story about homesteading than it is a story about family and the ways in which human beings come to terms with joy and disappointments and tragedy. The author uses the family's intimate, tactile relationship with the natural world as the canvas for her lush portrait of human relationships, thereby delivering a sensorial reading experience that is wholly satisfying. It's the kind of story that delights and twists and wrenches so deeply that once the book has been finished, the story seems to linger in the air, as if waiting to pick up where it stopped.
Profile Image for Gretchen.
477 reviews22 followers
June 3, 2011
I wanted to love this book. The set-up, the introduction of the organic farming community, and the story of the Nearing's impact on the homesteading movement are each interesting. But I couldn't get past the writing style. If you are writing your own memoir, I think it's off limits to talk about events before your birth as if you were actually present. Either you need to present only your own memories, or you need to change tone and "imagine" the conversation.
I kept with the book for the first 30% (per Kindle) but that was enough for me.
Profile Image for Savanna (savbeebooks).
350 reviews27 followers
May 7, 2019
I am one who loves memoirs, however, I really couldn't get into this one. It feels like it was less of a memoir and more of a work of fiction with some parts of a memoir?? The entire book is written from the perspective of the main character from before she was even born through age 7. How does one write a memoir from before she was even born!? I feel like there really wasn't much happening either, it kept bringing in more people to the book and strayed away from the actual story that was supposed to being told. It wasn't a terrible book, but definitely not a favorite for me.
Profile Image for Jeri.
149 reviews16 followers
April 25, 2012
This book was interesting to me on several levels. The politics and social changes of the 60's and 70's were revisited, which brought back memories. The history of the organic food movement was detailed, also. The most impacting aspect of the story was the author's ability to depict her family dynamics and undoing in a gentle, insightful and understanding manner; when disrespect is so popular in memoirs.
Profile Image for Gwendolyn.
722 reviews31 followers
January 9, 2012
I was interested in the homesteading details of this memoir, but I was annoyed by the author's parents' negligent parenting. Also, the writing could have been better.
Profile Image for Jacqueline Knirnschild.
115 reviews15 followers
March 24, 2022
This memoir was a great introduction to the second wave of the back-to-the-land movement in the 60s & 70s. I loved how textured & layered the book was—Coleman included ample research, book quotes & excerpts from her mother’s journal. But, for the last third of the book, I found myself zoning out. The family drama wasn’t as compelling to me as the details about the self-sufficient farming lifestyle.
Profile Image for Cassandra.
16 reviews2 followers
July 14, 2022
So very well written, but gut wrenching and deeply sad. About Eliot Coleman's daughter growing up during the back-to-the-land movement. A remedy for those of us who may be tempted to idolalize self-sufficient homesteading.
360 reviews
November 16, 2019
Convinced me that I would probably not be good at homesteading. But also an interesting look at grief.
Profile Image for Enia.
319 reviews
March 15, 2020
This was a great memoir. I had listened to Melissa Coleman's Ted Talk just before reading it. Please do; it rounds things out.
Profile Image for Courtney.
327 reviews5 followers
May 23, 2020
Beautifully written story about living naturally. Unfortunately, tragedy is also natural.
Profile Image for Caitlin.
157 reviews1 follower
December 1, 2022
Took me a while to realize that this is the farm that supplies Blue Hill Co-op, where I’ve stopped many times during summer trips between Bangor and the island. What a heartbreaking story. So curious to visit the farm now…
Profile Image for Leslie.
303 reviews6 followers
February 25, 2017
I was one of thousands of young people in the late 60s and early 70s who wanted to get back to the land. I managed to have a large garden, become a vegetarian, grind my own flour, make my own bread and yogurt, grow my own alfalfa sprouts. But I kept my day job, fortunately, so i could afford to build a rock ‘n roll collection, buy an awesome stereo and pay for the electricity to power it. I say “fortunately” because the full-tilt back-to-the-land movement meant, as author Melissa Coleman put it, “nineteenth-century primitivism”, complete with dried peat moss for toilet paper and diapers. My obsession with rock music kept me away from dried peat moss. Whew !!

Melissa Coleman’s parents were among the few who accomplished the complete transition to self-sufficiency. Her memories apparently come from her mother’s detailed diaries, as much of the story takes place before Melissa was even born and when she was a toddler. It’s a fascinating story, although their success was tempered by eventual disasters.

As an interesting follow-up to the book, I found an interview of the Coleman’s by a “Wall Street Journal” reporter in 1971, and now posted on the “Mother Earth News” website:


The Coleman’s were worried at the time that the reporter would write an unfavorable report of their alternative lifestyle, but not so. He not only wrote a favorable report, he later became a leading advocate of “farm to table” food management and wrote a follow-up interview with Eliot Coleman in 2010:


All in all, it’s a pleasant memoir. At least until the disasters strike.
Profile Image for Heather.
406 reviews2 followers
July 11, 2019
This book has been on my TBR list since 2013 so I'm guessing I stumbled upon it volunteering at a book sort project. I can't remember what attracted me to it - but (as others have mentioned) I'm guessing it was the cover.

This book tells the story of Melissa Coleman's early life in the 1970's as the daughter of homesteaders in Maine. Billed as a memoir, it's really more of a mixture of her parents story and her own as a lot of it takes place before she was born or when she was too little to have her own recollection of events. Basically, what I got from this story was that Melissa grew up with very little in terms of boundaries and felt attention starved much of her young life - first losing her parent's attention to the demands of their 60 acre farm, then to the birth of her sister Heidi and then later to her sister Clara.

I don't know what I was expecting from this book, but I definitely don't feel my expectations were met. I found the author's voice to be flat (as is mine; though she does have a pretty singing voice) which made it hard to stay focused on the book. And quite frankly, for the most part, I didn't find the story to be all that interesting. It kept bouncing back and forth in time, which while not hard to follow, felt disjointed in places. I also just didn't care about all the "apprentices" and new neighbors and visitors to the farm who were introduced along the way.

I guess I felt the story would focus more on the aftermath of Heidi's accidental death at the age of 3, and the grief recovery process. But while that's mentioned in the beginning, her death doesn't happen until well into the book, the story focusing instead on events leading up to it, starting with the Colemans initially meeting as a college student and teacher with the bulk of the story focused on their trials and tribulations as back-to-the-land homesteaders. The way the author chose to tell the story from the point after Heidi's death made me wonder if writing this book was a therapeutic exercise designed to help Melissa finally come to terms with that tragic event. (In my own experience, writing has been a wonderful grief recovery tool).

I did like that there was a line in the epilogue that better explained the title of the book and also tied back to the beginning of the story. Overall, it wasn't a bad book - the reviews seem split between those who loved it and those who felt it was just "meh." I can see how some would really enjoy it, especially those who are familiar with the area and/or have an interest in the "back-to-the-land" movement of the 1970's as people today try to move back to a more organic diet. Perhaps if I'd read it rather than listened to it, I would have found it more interesting but as it stands, I fall firmly into the "meh" camp on this one.
Profile Image for Ciara.
Author 3 books342 followers
October 6, 2011
this was recommended to me by a friend. it's a memoir by a woman who was raised on a back-to-the-land homestead in the 70s. her parents were followers of scott & helen nearing. the nearings sold her parents a parcel of land & her father, eliot coleman, became pretty well known in organic faming/gardening circles, apparently. but it was far from an idyllic life. eliot suffered from hyperthyroidism, which compromised his health in pretty significant ways & exacerbated his wife's depression. & when their middle daughter, heidi, was three years old, she drowned in a pond on the land. this is hardly a spoiler, because it is stated inn the jacket copy. the colemans' relationship was strained by eliot's health issues, sue's depression, the death of their daughter, eliot's fanaticism for the homestead, & the isolation of the homesteading lifestyle, as well as the many comely lasses that showed up during the season to apprentice. & the colemans didn't seem to have a great methodology for working out their issues in a way that wouldn't be extremely traumatizing for the children. because eliot was devoted to the homestead & sue's depression made the work more difficult & less appealing for her, eliot told her to take the youngest child & clear out back to her parents' house on several occasions. at one point, both parents up & left while melissa was sleeping, leaving her in the care of the neighbors.

all of this is pretty much stated on the jacket copy. the book just spins out the narrative for 300+ laborious pages. i kept waiting for the story to pick up speed & go someplace concrete, but it never really happened. there were just a lot of descriptions of the labor involved in maintaining an organic farm, the various birds that nested in the woods, what the family ate (they maintained a strict vegetarian diet, & melissa suggests this wasn't exactly helping anyone's physical or mental health), etc. it wasn't terrible, but i read it right after i finished arms wide open, so i think i had hit my wall for tedious descriptions of homesteading hippies.

& as other reviewers have mentioned, it was definitely weird for melissa to describe events that transpired well before her birth as if she was an eyewitness. such as the circumstances under which her parents met. i don't doubt that melissa interviewed her parents for the book, maybe had access to her mother's journals, maybe remembers stories her parents told her when she was little. my parents definitely told me all about how they met & their initial impressions of one another. so i'm not in the camp that thinks it's bogus for melissa to pass this book off as memoir when she's writing more of a biography of her parents. it was just a little strange.
Profile Image for Truff.
140 reviews16 followers
September 14, 2015
Dysfunctional hippie family attempts to be "self sufficient" in the woods, tragedy results.

Somehow using free labor of groupies and hangers-on isn't really self sufficiency, but ok. Was surprised that it wasn't admitted that not everyone is a "worker" as it wasn't just a solitary family, it was an entire group of clueless people, after the father started getting notoriety, which drove his workaholic self away even more from his family to affairs and dalliances and trips to Europe.

The Nearings, the "mentors" - admitted socialists, certainly like their capitalism when it was helping them sell books, helping build them a new house, paying for their trips to sell books, allowing them to order exotic fruits from other locations to pad their diet, and stealing recipes and tips to use as their own, all the while creating a persona of illusion that they were self sufficient and independent.

This really killed me. The incessant moral superiority of not being a "carrion eater" or "killing animals to eat their flesh". Ok. So you are a strict vegetarian for whatever reasons. That doesn't mean everyone has to be.
YET, the father would drown unfortunate male goats born to their milking goats, because there was no outlet to sell them (no one wanted them) and they were "useless eaters". And he didn't even have the ability to do it humanely, like shooting them - he drowned them. If the back to earth self sufficiency thing was so big in the 70's, then there should have been a push to find a use for those male goats. Or don't breed goats.

Wasn't really impressed with the whole "back to earth" thing. The mother fell apart and basically abandoned the first born daughter, running away a few times with the younger daughter. I could kind of see that, as the first daughter was wild and mother probably couldn't cope with her strong willedness, impulsiveness, and selfishness. Basically bad qualities that were encouraged by their nondisciplined, non structured life. The daughter was never taught self control or even given limits for her own safety, and teaching her (them) to be able to function in society.

This book gave me a bad taste in my mouth, I'm not sure if the daughter wrote it to highlight the parent's wrongdoing (and dont we all do things wrong in the course of being a parent?) as it didn't seem completely judgemental, but the whole book gave me a bad feeling. I felt sorry for them when they lost their child, and fought to have her buried on the property, but felt it would have been unnecessary if there was a little more supervision there. Not that I'm in any way, a helicopter parent. I really disliked the parents, the Nearings, the children, even the grandparents.

Profile Image for Michelle.
Author 12 books1,340 followers
April 24, 2011
3.5 stars. If you’re going to read this, whatever you do, don’t read the jacket copy. I picked this up because of excellent reviews and for some reason, about halfway through, decided to check out the jacket. Whoever wrote it did the author and this book a huge disservice because there is a major spoiler. Based on the subtitle (“a family undone��) I figured this didn’t have a happy ending, but to have such a huge (and late-breaking) plot point on the cover copy was a big mistake. I hope they change it for the paperback.

Anyway, this is a memoir of a woman who grew up as a “homesteader.” Her young, idealist parents bought acreage in Maine where they built a sustainable farm. I inadvertently read this during Earth Day and its “live off the land” theme was quite apropos. Apparently the author’s father is well known in the organic farming industry. I’d (unsurprisingly) never heard of him but he was certainly ahead of his time in terms of his views on sustainability, the evils of corporate farming, overuse of oil, and the general green/organic movement. This book included many interesting tidbits about the way of life and green practices in general. At times it got a little too detailed for me, but overall this angle was highly interesting.

There is also a bit of a cautionary tale here. Becoming hyper-focused in one area can lead to major deficiencies in other areas. As idealistic as her parents were, especially her father, they were at times frustrating, even negligent. A way of life trumped everything else including health (mental, physical) and safety. The author did an excellent job of showing how any deficiencies one might have are exacerbated in this kind of environment.

I loved the author’s writing style. Her prose is sharp and interesting and definitely cliché-free. There were some downright breathtaking sentences and turns of phrases. I did think there were issues that never got resolved (I wanted more of an epilogue!) and at times just too many people/ apprentices/ relationships to keep track of. Overall, though, this was a very evocative and unique memoir.
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