Down East 2013 ©
America was in turmoil in 1968. In cities, street battles were being fought between anti-war protesters and police. On college campuses, students were occupying buildings, and at the Miss America pageant, liberated women were burning their bras. Meanwhile, idealistic young people were going back to the land. For some this movement included radical experiments in communal living, but for others it was a return to nineteenth-century values using nineteenth-century tools. The goal was simple: To become entirely self-sufficient.
Melissa Coleman’s parents were homesteaders of this kind. Inspired by the book Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, they came to Maine in 1968, bought sixty acres of land from the Nearings just next to their farm on Cape Rosier, and set to work. Melissa Coleman’s generous and engaging memoir, This Life Is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone (HarperCollins, New York, New York; 325 pages; $25.99) tells the story of what it was like to be a child of such parents. The book is a tribute to them, particularly to her father, Eliot, who became one of the founders of the organic farming movement in Maine. Like many other memoirs, it is also an act of reconciliation to personal loss and grief.
Melissa was born on the farm in 1969 and lived there until she was nine. It was an idyllic life for a child. Coleman is excellent at describing the many enchantments of her childhood — lying under singing trees in spring, running naked in the woods in the summer, being pulled in a bushel basket across an icy pond — but from the very beginning we know that tragedy is waiting in the wings. (The exact nature of it is spelt out on the jacket flaps.) Emphasis on that tragedy gives the memoir a portentous feel at first, and the beginning is also weighed down by too much family background.
“Papa” is the hero of this story. Coleman always writes about him in glowing terms. “It was by the force of his will alone that we had lasted as long as we did.” She adopts her father’s point of view toward her mother, seeing her as weak and emotionally needy. She writes things like: “Papa began to wonder if Mama had a split personality,” or notes that when her mother asks for more support from him, her father thinks she sounds “a tad hormonal.”
Given that Coleman is writing about the birth of the organic farming movement in Maine, much of the book is about food: growing it, storing it, preparing it, selling it. Coleman’s parents care so much about what they eat that they are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health for it, and they are such purists they have to do it all without anything as modern as electricity.
Coleman’s parents were “united by this passion for their lifestyle, for good food, and for their mission of self-sufficiency. Food, from its procurement to its enjoyment, was the force that held them together.” It wasn’t strong enough. Coleman writes that “Mama was doing the kinds of housework many women believed they’d left behind with their virginity in the 1960s.” The pages describing the sorts of work she did are unbelievable.
This was not work women left behind in the 1960s; it was work women hadn’t done since the days of the frontier. Sue Coleman was pregnant four times in ten years. She suffered a miscarriage and the death of a beloved three-year old child. Her husband was emotionally cold, self-righteous, and unfaithful. After he left her for another woman, she took Melissa’s little sister and left the farm, too.
Memories of childhood are like dreams, fragile, fragmentary, disjointed. Coleman is deft at reproducing the dreamlike memories of her childhood, but is reluctant to spell out the hardships she endured. Her mother neglected her, her sister died, she felt it was her fault, as any child would. Yet Coleman writes her story without recriminations. Her gift is letting us see the life of Maine’s homesteaders, 1970s version, from a child’s perspective. It is an eye-opening experience.