This Life is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone by Melissa Coleman

Written in a clear voice tinged with heartbreak, love, and memory, Coleman recounts her childhood on a farm in Maine. But this was not just any farm: her father, Elliot Coleman, has become the guru of the organic farming movement, well-known to legions of gardeners and farmers. The homestead of Melissa’s childhood was the genesis of, and proving ground for, his eventual mentoring of so many through his books, lectures, and farm apprenticeships. Melissa’s intention in writing this memoir, it seems, was to come to grips with the family tragedy that defined her childhood and changed their lives forever. Her parents, Elliot and Sue, became friends with, and neighbors of, the famed Scott and Helen Nearing. This was the seventies, and theirs was one of many back-to-the-land stories of that time; the Colemans were idealistic off-the-grid homesteaders, determined to survive by the work of their own hands, in spite of the many hardships endured as a result. It is difficult to read of what might be considered the deprivation and neglect of their girls, and the eventual unraveling of the family, but there is no doubt that their father was driven by overwhelmingly passionate beliefs, that their mother was a fragile soul, and neither one seemed capable of recognizing the great cost exacted upon their children until it was too late. Without rancor, without being judgmental, Coleman’s account reveals a fascinating family history that is part and parcel of the environmental movement. She shows us how much hard work and sacrifice was involved, describes the sublime joys of rural living as well as the downside, and gives us a behind-the-scenes look at several of the most famous sustainable-living proponents of our times. Given that her parents are still alive, though, Coleman’s writing does exhibit a certain amount of restraint; one wonders what this book might have been like had it been written further down the road.