THIS LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS: ONE DREAM, SIXTY ACRES, AND A FAMILY UNDONE, by Melissa Coleman, April 2011, HarperCollins, 325 pages, $25.99.
Newlyweds Eliot and Sue packed up their belongings in a VW car in the summer of 1968 and drove to Cape Rosier, Maine, where they abandoned the conveniences of electricity and running water to live off the land and self-sufficiently raise a family.
The first among their three daughters is Melissa Coleman, delivered by a midwife in the $680 cabin her father built. Now a freelance writer living in Freeport, Coleman has returned to her childhood to recapture in poetic and honest words her unconventional childhood, shaken by tragedy, in her memoir “This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone,” which hit bookstores April 12.
During its short shelf life, the memoir already has earned outstanding reviews in The New York Times, Boston Globe, People Magazine and an excerpt in Oprah Magazine.
“It was every author’s dream,” Coleman said in an interview Wednesday. “I couldn’t have asked for a better launch.”
Coleman wrote the memoir for her sister, Heidi, a companion she had lost early in life and whose accidental drowning (revealed at the beginning of the book) resulted in a sadness and guilt that rent the fabric of her family’s rural paradise.
“Things were really hard at the time, and there just wasn’t space to grieve for her, so instead, we just never talked about her,” said Coleman. “Really, [writing the memoir] was just a huge excavation, to go back and talk about that. But having children of my own, it was something I had to do to be the best parent I could be. It was pushing too many of my fears.
“My goal in writing it was to bring her back to life on its pages, and at the same time to bring back this time that had been lost.”
At first, Coleman didn’t intend to write a book, she was simply asking questions, eager to learn the full story of her childhood. But as the story came together, crafting a memoir seemed the natural conclusion. She let her nervous yet supportive mother and father read the manuscript for inaccuracies before moving forward.
“They realized it was my story and they let me tell my story,” she said.
One crucial aspect of the memoir is her family’s deep connection to homesteaders Helen and Scott Nearing, gurus of the back-to-the-land movement whose book “Living the Good Life” served as an early model for people searching for a simpler life during the 1960s and 1970s. The Colemans purchased their 60 acres of land from the experienced homesteaders, becoming their neighbors and close friends.
“The Nearings were like distant grandparents to me. They felt like family,” Coleman said. “We were able to relate to them on a very familiar level and I tried to convey that familiarity [in the memoir] which made them more real people than icons.”
The memoir begins as her parents’ story, years before Coleman was born. She weaves the tale from seeds of memory — old photos, stories passed down and vague flashes of her own bittersweet memories accompanied with nostalgic scents and retained feelings. Her relationship to the land is told in her barefooted frolics in the forest and the candy carrots her father nursed to life.
“They’re like beads that I strung together on a necklace,” she said. “Then I talked to all the people who were involved to get the fabric of what it was like. They could tell me exactly what happened.”
The Colemans’ Greenwood Farm was an escape from the outside world of processed foods, assembly lines and chemicals. Her mother hauled water, made cheese from their goats’ milk, jarred raspberries and stored vegetables in a root cellar to support their vegetarian diet throughout the long winter.
Yet her family remained mindful to Vietnam War protests and the energy crisis, problems that drove young people to the protection of the Maine forest, and sometimes, their home. While Coleman has been touring the United States to give readings of her memoir, she’s been reacquainted with many former apprentices of the Nearings and her family’s farm.
Coleman isn’t the accomplished organic gardener that her father is, but she has chosen ways from her past that fit her family’s lifestyle. She, her husband and twin daughters try to live simply, forgoing paper towels and trash bags, and finding joy in picking fresh herbs from their small garden.
The four-year project never felt like work, she said. It was a mystery, a constant search that granted her unexpected gifts: knowledge about her parents that had been lost, and most of all, her realization of their strength.
The Nearings make beautiful “the good life” and give people the tools to live in harmony with the environment, said Coleman, but her memoir tells of the great price that one family pays while trying to achieve that life. She digs into the roots of the ideals and practices of the time to the joy and trouble underneath.
“What I’m doing is showing that it can be hard, and that there’s a lot of emotion involved in that. That’s what I bring,” she said. “I don’t have a huge green thumb. I see and love people. I can talk about what it feels like to live it.”
Melissa Coleman is touring and reading her memoir at various locations throughout the United States and many locations in Maine throughout the spring and summer. She will speak at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, at the Camden Public Library, along with Caitlin Shetterly, author of “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home.” Coleman is also scheduled to speak at 3:30 p.m. Friday, May 6, at the Maine Magazine offices in Portland. For a complete list of readings, visit www.melissacoleman.com.