Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review: This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak by Melissa Coleman

Opening lines of the book:

“We must have asked our neighbor Helen to read our hands that day. Her own hands were the color of onion skins, darkened with liver spots, and ever in motion.”

Why I read it:

I’m interested in memoirs about women who grew up outside the mainstream.

What it’s about:

In the late 1960s, inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing’s book, Living the Good Life, Melissa Coleman’s parents bought land on the coast of Maine from the Nearings, built their own home and cleared the land so they could farm it. This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak is a memoir about the 10 years Melissa and her family spent on the farm and how a tragic accident ended their dream.

My thoughts:

I have such mixed feelings about this book that it’s hard for me to sort them neatly into “what I liked” and “what I didn’t like” (or even express them very coherently). On the one hand, This Life Is in Your Hands is, for the most part, a beautifully written and heart-wrenching story of a family trying to live their dream and the terrible toll it took on them. On the other hand, there were several elements of the book that didn’t really work for me.

For starters, since the tragedy at the heart of this memoir happened when the author was quite young, I expected the book to focus on the aftermath of this event, rather than mostly lead up to it, as was the case. This was not a problem in and of itself; however, it did mean that much of this “memoir” was actually based on other people’s memories, as Coleman was too young to recall many of the details of her early life. (The story in fact begins before she’s born.) And perhaps because of that, I found the beginning of the book quite confusing: Coleman flits back and forth in time to set the scene for her tale, from her parents’ decision to move back to the land, to her very early years, to her parents’ childhoods and back again (with a few other back-and-forths for good measure). However, once she has established the background for her story, she tells the rest of it in mostly chronological order and I found myself engrossed in her book.

Little did I know when I picked up this memoir that Coleman’s father, Eliot Coleman, is one of the pioneers of the modern organic movement. As someone who is a big proponent of organic food, I was fascinated by this glimpse into the movement’s beginnings. Some of Eliot Coleman’s ideas were totally new to me, such as that “The role of insects with plants is like the role of wolves with deer and caribou: to eliminate the unhealthy and unfit” (p. 66)—in other words, if your plants are healthy, they will not attract pests.

Occasionally, the foreshadowing in the book fell flat: it felt like Coleman was hinting at stories that she then never really told. For example, she says “The Nearings would prove, like most mentors, to have clay feet, and their ideas fallible, but their achievements will always be an extraordinary example of the power of determination and effort” (p. 57). I expected her to say more about this, but the Nearings are actually fairly peripheral to this story. She also hints several times that her parents’ health issues were exacerbated by their vegetarian diet, but never elaborates, which, as a vegetarian, drove me crazy!

However, the book is also filled with beautiful passages that testify to the joys as well as the sorrows of the way of life Coleman’s parents embraced. For example:
Heidi and I were always outside, naked and barefoot, dancing on the blanket of apple blossoms, skipping along wooded paths, catching frogs at the pond, eating strawberries and peas from the vine, and running from the black twist of garter snakes in the grass. We lay in the shade under the ash tree, gazing up at the crown of leaves and listening to the sounds of the farm—birds calling, goats bleating, chattering of customers at the farm stand, and whispers of tree talk.

When you focused on the leaves fluttering in the dappled light, they vibrated and shimmered into one, becoming a million tiny particles. You felt a shift inside, and you began to vibrate too, on the same frequency as everything else. All secrets were there, all truths, all knowledge. You had to scan with your heart to find what you were seeking. It might no be spoken in words, it might be hidden in rhyme, in song, in images. You knew the tree and the earth were the same as you, made of particles, like you, come together in a different form. You loved it all as you loved yourself (p. 4).
And here’s another of my favourite passages:
However, one morning, as I lay in my bunk, the good feeling returned. It hadn’t come in a while and I was afraid I would scare it away because you can’t feel the good feeling and be aware of it at the same time. I was thinking about the way light creates the shapes of things, when suddenly I felt it, like a smooth stone in my mouth. My body dissolved its boundaries and became part of all things. Just as suddenly the feeling was gone, and I was me again, lying in my bunk as the ache of reality returned. [. . .]
The floorboards creaked as Mama drifted into the kitchen. From above in the bunk she looked soft in the light, her face still open from sleep, not closed up like during the day.
“Do you ever get the good feeling when you first wake up in the morning?”
“The good feeling?”
“Yeah, like a smooth stone in your mouth?”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Like warm light surrounding your body.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Do you get that?”
“Not recently.” (pp. 292-293). 
Although I didn’t love this book, I’m glad I read it. If you want to learn more about the birth of the modern organic movement from the perspective of one family who became icons of this way of life, This Life Is in Your Hands is certainly a worthwhile read. I would also recommend it, with reservations, to anyone interested in farming memoirs.

Thank you to Harper Perennial for sending me this book to review.

This Life Is in Your Hands is on blog tour with TLC Book Tours this month. Visit these blogs for other reviews:



  1. I'm also a strong believer in organic food, and this book sounds very interesting to me. I'm not sure that I've read any farm memoirs yet.

  2. I listened to this and it was narrated by the author. I'm sure she's a great person, but she was a terrible choice to narrate the audiobook. I think I would have enjoyed it more in print. Thanks for linking to my review.

  3. I don't read a lot of non-fiction so this wouldn't be something I would ordinarily pick up. Having said that I would read it if I had more time just because I think I would find the organic farming part interesting. I don't like to read about family tragedy though! I will have to make up mind mind! ;)

  4. The organic farming bit interests me as well.

  5. It's so hard for me to review a memoir, to separate the author's real experiences from his/her writing style, so I definitely understand your issues here.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts for the tour!

  6. I guess we can't love every book we read but you did enjoy it and took away things from it to be sure.

  7. I have been wondering about this book since I first saw it. I have a feeling I'm going to share many of your feelings about it. I'm glad, while not perfect, it's sounds worth the read.

  8. I was really on a memoir kick for awhile so am taking a break from them for now but this one is of interest to me so I will add it to my list for later.

  9. I couldn't get through this one. It just seemed a little too overwrought, although the subject matter definitely interested me.