Back to the land

Digging up cathartic childhood memories
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  April 6, 2011


There is an idyllic pull to the homesteading lifestyle, especially when such a back-to-the-land experiment is undertaken on the coast of Maine, where rocky shores abut dense woods and merely breathing the air imparts rural spirit and pluck.

But of course, there are regular, flawed men and women behind that wizard's curtain of garden plots and homemade breads and jarred foods and log cabins. We observe this nitty-gritty life from both sides in This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone (HarperCollins), a new memoir by Freeport resident Melissa Coleman.

This is a relatively traditional nonfiction narrative about Coleman's early years, growing up on a homestead near Bucksport with her parents, Eliot (yes, that Eliot Coleman, the organic gardening pioneer) and Sue, whose counterculture adventure was influenced by Helen and Scott Nearing, the grandparents of the '60s and '70s back-to-the-land movement. There are lovely sections that talk about food, farming, and the sense of collective community that grew from this experiment. There is also a hearty serving of tragedy — death and domestic dissolution. When Coleman was seven, her three-year-old sister Heidi drowned in an irrigation pond. Her parents' marriage fell apart soon after that.

To tell this story, Coleman (who decided to write the book when the 2005 birth of her twin girls stirred up some lingering unease about her own childhood) was faced with the dilemma of writing about things that happened in her own life before she was old enough to understand or even remember them. She assembled her own memories, then interviewed family members and farm apprentices about what they recalled from those years. She also used newspaper articles and journal entries as sources, lending an academic tone to some of the early chapters.

What emerges is one woman's reconstruction of her own complicated past — and through that recreation comes absolution, for herself and for her family.

Sometimes, Coleman successfully evokes the physical sensations that define, for small children, otherwise indescribable feelings of confusion, anxiety, or fear. More than once, she writes about a lump (an "egg") that rises from the pit of her stomach into her throat in times of trouble; these brief moments are lyrical and pitch-perfect.

"[T]he egg in my throat was the feeling of something missing," she writes when her father packs up their chickens — her only friends — and sends them away. "It was hard and smooth and heavy, but also so fragile it might break and make me cry . . . It was the lump in the throat behind everything beautiful in life."

At other points, she writes with the detached wisdom of an adult, as in this passage about her parents: "She didn't know how to ask for what she needed. He didn't know how to listen to her silences." That type of sophisticated take occasionally breaks up the urgency of Coleman's unraveling tale.

Still, such perspective allows her to narrate scenes like this one with a mixture of analysis and nostalgia:

"I see now that what also made the meal so delicious was that, despite the appearance of bounty, we were always on the edge of not having enough . . .

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