One of my very favorite things is sitting down and planning to read just a few chapters of a book, but getting so wrapped up in the story that I just end up finishing the whole thing. I’m not sure there’s a more satisfying feeling than emerging from the world of a book hours after you started knowing the time spent with it was entirely worth it.
That’s what happened to me yesterday with Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone. I got up around seven and went to the Farmers’ Market with my friend Erin (which was miserably cold!), came home and put my pj’s back on, then settled in my reading chair for a few chapters of the book before I had to get on with my day.
Four hours later I was finished with the book and left with no coherent sentences to explain how amazing it was, just a few words I jotted at the end of my notes: “Ominous, elegant, honest, relevant, evocative… just beautiful.”
This Life is In Your Hands is a memoir about Coleman’s childhood on the rugged coast of Maine in the 1970s with her parents, Eliot and Sue, who are part of the small movement of people leaving the comforts of society behind to homestead in the woods. The idealistic couple initially has personal and professional success at their endeavor — two beautiful daughters, recognition of their farming success from major national media, and a series of apprentices who come to the farm hoping to learn from the best.
However, the cost of the simple life — frenetic summers, long winters, and the daily pressure to get by — takes its toll on Sue and Eliot’s marriage. The dream of independence ends up with one daughter dead and the other abandoned by both parents. It’s a startlingly dark memoir about the cost of dreams.
The book opens with an anecdote that perfectly captures the idealistic yet ominous feeling that permeates the rest of the memoir. Melissa and her three-year-old sister Heidi are visiting the family’s neighbor, Helen, a pillar in the homesteading community. Helen is a believer in the mystical, so often reads the girls’ hands. When she takes Heidi’s hand she notes the short lifeline:
“What do you mean by short?” Mama asked, brown eyes alert, mother-bird-like. “Thirty, forty years?”
“Oh, it doesn’t mean a thing,” Helen said, and began to mutter about the overabundance of tomatoes in the garden.
That’s the day that Heidi, left alone by a mentally-fraying mother and frenetically busy father, wandered over to the pond on the family property, fell in, and drowned. It’s an portentous way to start this story, and Coleman maintains the tricky balance between the lovely parts of her childhood and the underlying darkness throughout the story.
Coleman’s writing is elegant. I loved the way she captured herself and her family at different moments in time — contrasting the idealism and and uncertainty of different ages and times with ease. This description, for example, of the book that helped launch Sue and Eliot’s quest to homestead made me stop and admire her prose:
Three years earlier, back in Franconia it was a certain book that set my parents on this unexpected course of their lives together. Thinking of that book, I imagine it as an old genie’s lamp waiting in that dimly lit health food store. Its magic was of the kind books possess when they come into our lives at the right moment to show us what we need to learn. As my parents opened its worn pages, their future was released.
There is a deep honesty to the writing as well. Coleman doesn’t hold back about what life was like on their farm — both the good and the bad — which is vitally important in a memoir. Addtionally, Coleman has a beautifully sparse way of setting the scene in the 1970s, every so often including details about what songs may have been on the radio or what the political climate was like to set the stage for the family’s exodus from society and back to the farm.
Despite being set back in the 1970s, I thought the memoir was surprisingly relevant, giving an important context to the current emphasis on organic and natural foods. Her family was part of this movement’s beginning, and there are lessons to be learned from their lives. As Coleman writes:
Looking back, I see our isolated farm as the small dewdrop on the vast web, and Papa’s individual goal to grow his own organic vegetables as part of a greater shift in the world, spreading like a chain reaction along the strands. Rachel Carson’s concerns over chemical agriculture let in effect to Papa’s desire to grow his own food, and his example and that of other organic pioneers would soon be followed by a trickle of oddballs, but a trickle that grew until, as the Y2K book The Tipping Point explains, it tipped, and today the word organic is mainstream.
Small drops, we see, like raindrops on stone, can eventually change the course of a river. These small forces, too, can change the path of a life.
I was also struck, as I read, of the way Coleman used different symbols to evoke different emotions from the text. Water, throughout, is a source of power, both for good and for unintended purposes. From the introduction onward, every time water is mentioned, like in the passage above, it has a feeling of comfort and danger. The same thing happens with hands, which from the title onward take on significance. Hands are the way that life is made, and the tools each person has to change their life, if they so choose.
I don’t know that I can say enough good things about this memoir. It was just beautiful. It was everything I hope to have in a memoir, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review consideration.