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This Life Is in Your Hands Hardcover – April 12, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 138 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With urban farming and backyard chicken flocks becoming increasingly popular, Coleman has written this timely and honest portrait of her own childhood experience in Maine with her two homesteading parents during the turbulent 1970s. Inspired by the back-to-the-land lifestyle of Scott and Helen Nearing, Coleman's parents, Sue and Eliot, decided to create their own idyllic reality on 60 acres of land in Maine that was sold to them by the Nearing family for a token sum. While Coleman emphasizes the beauty of growing up in a family culture that valued the bounty of nature and freedom of expression, she does not hesitate to also expose farming's detrimental effect on family life—her own well-being as well as the accidental death of her younger sister. (Mar.)
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“Intense readability.... haunting power.... as well as lush, vivid atmosphere that is alluring in its own right.... [A] story so nuanced that it would be a disservice to reveal what was in store. If you want to know what happened, read it for yourself.” (Janet Maslin, New York Times)

“A fascinating look at the roots of the organic movement as well as a cautionary tale about the limits of idealism and the importance of forgiveness.” (Washington Post)

“Rendered with sublimity…. [Coleman] fluently describes the power of the natural world, familial love and heartbreak, grace after loss.” (New York Times Book Review)

“Coleman’s moving recounting never loses hope of redemption.” (People, Lead Review "People Pick")

“The Colemans and the Nearings . . . worked hard to create an alternative economy that is still growing in rural America. This memoir is evidence of their great sacrifices. (Los Angeles Times)

“Combine the sincerity of Walden with the poignancy of The Glass Castle, add dashes of the lush prose found in The Botany of Desire, and you get This Life Is in Your Hands…. I was engaged and deeply moved by this evocative tale of Paradise found then lost.” (Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed)

“[This] is a rare breed of book-a memoir that justifies its own existence; that feels like it needs to exist…. Coleman shows that without the essential ingredient of heart, any family-no matter how perfect and revolutionary it seems-is in danger of experiencing real loss.” (NPR.org)

“Lyrical and down-to-earth, wry and heartbreaking, This Life Is In Your Hands is a fascinating and powerful memoir. Melissa Coleman doesn’t just tell the story of her family’s brave experiment and private tragedy; she brings to life an important and underappreciated chapter of our recent history.” (Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher)

“With beautiful lyrical prose, Coleman shows us what life in a 1970s back-to-nature farm was like, and the dear price her family paid pursuing their dream.” (Ann Hood, author of The Red Thread and The Knitting Circle)

“Her memoir is as wrenching as it is beautifully written.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

“Melissa Coleman’s enthralling account of ‘70s back-to-the-land living is an important cultural and emotional document: this is a story about surviving and, eventually, thriving amidst the shadows of loss.” (Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment)

“A dream, a family, a heartbreaking tragedy—and a book I could not put down. Melissa Coleman’s memoir of a back-to-the-land childhood is fresh, organic, and gorgeously written.” (Peter Behrens, author of The Law of Dreams)

“An absorbing read that intelligently arrays the romanticism of living off the land against the emotional challenges of moving off the grid.” (Grist Magazine)

“This uncompromising memoir is tender, nonjudgmental, and heartfelt.” (Tuscon Citizen)

“A beautifully rendered memoir about growing up in a unique environment fueled by experimental back-to-the-land living. . . . Coleman illuminates the beauty of growing up in a family culture that valued nature and freedom of expression, but also frankly exposes farming’s negative impact on her family. (Star Tribune)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (April 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061958328
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061958328
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (138 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #45,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kathi D VINE VOICE on January 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was drawn into this book right away, and could hardly put it down once I started reading. The story takes place in a time that seems at once very recent and very far away indeed. The author was born in the late 60's into a family committed to a life that most would consider intense deprivation, although many aspired to it--the life of the homesteader, who would be beholden to none but him/herself. Her parents had heard the siren song of Helen and Scott Nearing and joined them in Maine, purchasing a plot of land upon which they planned to raise their family by the work of their own hands.

And what a lot of work it was! I was a teenager when the Colemans were setting out to be organic farmers, and I read books by J. I. Rodale and the Nearings, fantasizing about the rural life. In my dreams it was so much more carefree! In fact, it was backbreaking and unceasing labor for the parents, and loneliness for the children, especially the eldest, Melissa, who longed for a friend. Soon enough, there was a baby sister to share the adventures of roaming about the farm in (literally) naked innocence, with the freedom to graze on the ripe fruits and explore the woods. Too much freedom, in fact, which eventually led to tragedy and heartbreak.

The family's story is interwoven with the events going on in the world outside, although for Papa, nothing much mattered on the radio broadcasts except the weather report, as he threw himself into making organic crops, enough to feed his family and grow the farm. Mama had to see to storing food for the long winter months while caring for first one and then two daughters, tending the goats and chickens, and helping with all the other farm chores. As it turned out, the "simple" life was not as simple as it seemed.

It's a heartbreaking and brave memoir. Melissa Coleman tells her story with sympathy for all involved, but doesn't shirk the hard details of just what "living the good life" cost her family.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As someone who grew up in a commune during the 1970s, the same time period described in this book, many of the themes in "This Life is In Your Hands" resonated for me. The sense of disillusionment that many young, college-educated liberals had with the war in Vietnam, political corruption, and the energy crisis (to name just a few of the societal ills of the time) led many to seek an alternative lifestyle. The back-to-the-land movement was a search for a simpler, purer life, or even a search for some version of paradise. Although, as someone in the book is quoted as saying, "the very nature of paradise is that it will be lost."

And my experience was exactly that. No such paradise existed, and many of those who were swept away by this back-to-the-land movement were lost souls. And people who are lost don't make very good, or very responsible, parents. The neglect that Melissa Coleman or "Lissie" and her siblings suffered was somewhat commonplace within hippie families. Basic tenets of childcare were rejected in the name of being healthy and free. In the case of the Coleman family, prenatal care was abandoned, childhood vaccinations (like tetanus shots) were overlooked, and a pond near the farmhouse lacked a fence. I was actually surprised that her parents sent young Lissie to school, but the sense one gets is that this was more about giving her mother a break from childcare, rather than about ensuring that Lissie received a good education.

My immediate emotional reaction to the book was recognition, and hard on the heels of this was sadness. Sadness that the idealism of Lissie's parents, and others like them, caused them to reject the negative parts of their society but fail to retain the positive parts.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This should be required reading for anyone who only sees the romance of living off the land. As seen through Melissa (Liss) Coleman's eyes, it was hard work, and the experiment ultimately destroyed her family.

Eliot and Sue Coleman were idealistic young people when they purchased 60 acres adjacent to the farm of Helen and Scott Nearing. In fact, the lifestyle values ideals over people. Their three daughters were raised by a passing parade of apprentices while the parents worked very, very hard to realize their dream of living off the land.

Actually I feel that Eliot and Sue were guilty of an insidious form of child abuse. Their daughters did not choose to live that life. As the eldest, Liss was working the farm at a very young age. She was terribly lonely and hungry for friends her own age. The parents seemed to put minimal effort into raising their daughters. Eliot became a kind of prophet, obsessed with his mission of sustainable biological farming. He worked crazy hours. Liss posits that his diet led to a vitamin deficiency and a subsequent thyroid condition. In any event, he eventually rejected his family, not just once but several times. Sue was mentally fragile and incapable of disciplining her daughters. When they got rambunctious, Sue in her own words "checked out." She fasted periodically which weakened her further and kept her less available to her children. The highest price was paid by Heidi, the middle daughter. After a terrible tragedy, any hope the family had of restoring their delicate balance was gone for good.

Melissa Coleman tells her story as more of a reporter than a memoirist. Her voice is somewhat detached but she provides excruciating detail, so the curious reader has a very strong sense of how it felt to live that life.
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