As sad as it was, I really enjoyed Melissa Coleman’s memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone. It is at times inspirational, at other times heartbreaking, and sometimes just frustrating. The frustration comes not from the writing, but from the actions of the people in Ms. Coleman’s story, and from the knowledge that this story is true – this is an honest account of her childhood and everyone who played a part in it. It is both tragic and beautiful.
The author has done an excellent job of taking her own memories and supplementing them with the perspectives of the adults from her young life, filling in the gaps, and yet making a cohesive story out of it. One does not recognize the different sources of the anecdotes she shares, but rather gets the sense that this was a very observant and precocious person with an astonishing power of recollection. The narrative has an easy, natural flow.
Melissa Coleman tells the story of how her parents came to the decision to drop out of the rat race, inspired by the writings of Helen and Scott Nearing – namely, Living The Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World. The Colemans visit the Nearings and end up purchasing from them sixty acres of land adjacent to (and formerly part of) Helen and Scott’s property, in order to start their own homestead. The Colemans are full of optimism and drive, determined to make a living the old-fashioned way, by the sweat of their brows and strength of their convictions.
It is a beautiful life for a while, with baby Melissa making her appearance, and then sisters Heidi and Clara, with an influx of apprentices to help with the work and bring a little social atmosphere to the little farm in Maine. Melissa’s father Eliot is never satisfied, however, and it is his continual push for greater success and recognition, and his desire to educate others, that begins the unraveling of the fabric of the Colemans’ lives. On top of growing stress comes family tragedy, and instead of rallying together, they drift further apart – to the detriment of young Melissa.
This is not a flattering portrait of Eliot and Sue Coleman, but it is a testament to the strength and resilience of the author, who has managed to make a happy life for herself despite these early deficiencies and disappointments. She has told her story with honesty and frankness, showing the reader her emotional responses to her situation, even when she is not proud of them.
It is clear that she does not seek pity, nor desire to make herself out the blameless hero of the book. She earned my respect and sympathy by virtue of her balanced and just account of the events of her life, and because she retold them with obvious skill and grace. Ms. Coleman is a talented writer, and apparently a well-adjusted individual.
This book serves as a cautionary tale of marriage and family, as well as the danger of trying to do too much. It is also simply a story of the land and how we, as modern humans, can get back in touch with it and find our place in the natural world – not apart from it, but living in harmony with nature and each other, and remembering to maintain balance in our lives.
I found myself lost in This Life Is in Your Hands for hours at a time, unwilling to put it aside. It was well worth those hours, even with all the sadness. I highly recommend it.