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The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America

The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America

by Mark Sundeen

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The radical search for the simple life in today’s America.

On a frigid April night, a classically trained opera singer, five months pregnant, and her husband, a former marine biologist, disembark an Amtrak train in La Plata, Missouri, assemble two bikes, and pedal off into the night, bound for a homestead they've purchased, sight unseen. Meanwhile,


The radical search for the simple life in today’s America.

On a frigid April night, a classically trained opera singer, five months pregnant, and her husband, a former marine biologist, disembark an Amtrak train in La Plata, Missouri, assemble two bikes, and pedal off into the night, bound for a homestead they've purchased, sight unseen. Meanwhile, a horticulturist, heir to the Great Migration that brought masses of African Americans to Detroit, and her husband, a product of the white flight from it, have turned to urban farming to revitalize the blighted city they both love. And near Missoula, Montana, a couple who have been at the forefront of organic farming for decades navigate what it means to live and raise a family ethically.   

A work of immersive journalism steeped in a distinctively American social history and sparked by a personal quest, The Unsettlers traces the search for the simple life through the stories of these new pioneers and what inspired each of them to look for — or create — a better existence. Captivating and clear-eyed, it dares us to imagine what a sustainable, ethical, authentic future might actually look like.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

When Mark Sundeen, looking for families to profile for his latest book, was introduced to farmer Luci Brieger, he explained that he was writing about the simple life. She barked back, "Nothing simple about it." Luci and her husband, Steve, are one of three couples featured in The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America. Like Sarah Wilcox and Ethan Hughes, who founded the electricity-, car-, and computer-free Possibility Alliance in Missouri, and Olivia Hubert and Greg Willerer, urban farmers in Detroit, they live sustainably and ethically, operating largely beyond the reach of global capitalism. But as Luci suggests, and as Sundeen's immersive, entertaining work confirms, living simply raises its own complicated questions.

Sundeen sought out Luci and Steve because they've been at it the longest: they've been growing pesticide-free vegetables for thirty years, running a successful produce business (without benefit of cell phones or computers), building a home, and raising three children on the forty acres of land they amassed over time outside of Missoula, Montana. Luci is an almost stereotypical rural curmudgeon, razzing the author for his "big city" shoes and spouting angry declarations about people who "plug in and play electronic solitaire and look at porn." But her path to family farming is interesting and instructive.

Luci arrived in Montana at the dawn of the Reagan era to attend graduate school in environmental studies. She quickly became disillusioned by her program's remote conception of "the environment," which, in Sundeen's words, was "a place outside people's homes, populated by whales, owls, rivers, forests, and air. To protect these things, laws were passed to limit human activity such as mining, drilling, damming, and logging. Yet none of the laws offered advice on how humans themselves were to live better." Luci radically changed course after reading Wendell Berry's 1977 back-to-the-land manifesto The Unsettling of America. (The book was pivotal for several of Sundeen's subjects and for the author himself, who nods to it with his title.) She quit school to apprentice at a farm that was in the vanguard of organic agriculture and, later, the local food movement. There she met Steve, one of the farm's partners; together they have maintained an ethical business that has netted them enough to support their family.

Like Luci and Steve, Olivia and Greg had desires that couldn't easily be fulfilled by the existing framework of consumer culture; they too ended up creating the world they wanted to live in. Olivia, an African-American horticulturist born and raised in Detroit, tried establishing her career there in 2008, but her economically devastated, crime-ridden hometown, in Sundeen's words, "no longer had the distinct characteristics — and advantages — of a city." For five years, the city was the largest in America that lacked a national grocery chain. Greg's parents were from Detroit but were among the majority of the city's whites who had fled for the suburbs in the 1960s. A happy childhood, however, had instilled no love of suburbia in their son. Greg considered the suburbs "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world": energy-guzzling homes, water-guzzling lawns, gas-guzzling cars required to go anywhere, not to mention the isolation and de facto segregation. Greg moved to the city. With swaths of it abandoned and property cheap, he eventually began growing, and then selling, his own food on vacant lots. He and Olivia met at the city's bustling farmer's market. They now run Brother Nature Produce, a farm that covers a block of the blighted neighborhood of North Corktown, supplying restaurants with gourmet organic greens.

Ethan and Sarah are the most hard-core of the author's pioneers. Ethan, who Sundeen describes as "hypnotic, disturbing, prophetic, inspiring," says, "The greatest conspiracy on the planet is that we need to oppress, kill, and pollute in order to get our needs met." He and Sarah, then pregnant, bought their eighty-acre homestead in La Plata, Missouri, sight unseen because it met a number of their requirements: a long growing season, ample rainfall, an easy bike ride to a college town and a train station (they do not use cars or travel by airplane). They started the Possibility Alliance, which has "virtually excised itself from the industrial system of food, fuel, and finance," hoping to attract permanent members to live on the land with them. Those who join are required to donate all of their savings elsewhere beforehand; they live in voluntary poverty (one reason is to avoid supporting the government by paying taxes). Ethan and Sarah, Sundeen observes, have "renounced nearly every benefit of being born into the world's largest economy."

The Possibility Alliance runs well-attended weeklong seminars and has hosted a steady stream of temporary residents. Not surprisingly, Ethan and Sarah have had a more difficult time attracting permanent members. Sundeen wrote The Unsettlers because he yearned for "a life more simple and purposeful than the one I actually led, cluttered with forms to fill out, machines that beeped, and pointless tasks performed for money." But the book doesn't present a clear path forward for readers who have themselves felt such yearnings — who will certainly admire his subjects but wouldn't be able to live up to their standards. Luci is contemptuous of those who buy organic grapes shipped from Peru in the winter. Ethan's friends admit that they are stung by his judgmental attitude. I'd be scared to tell either of them how much I spent on my cup of coffee this morning.

In addition, their lives are difficult, and not just because of the relentless hard labor. How many of us would be as gung-ho as Ethan to bike twenty miles in a thunderstorm to attend a meeting? Even Sundeen admits that he is "seduced by the idea" of the simple life but "repelled by the hardship." We're in a moment when many Americans are worried that our country's core values are at risk; some will surely, as a consequence, search for ways to live more ethical lives. The Unsettlers offers inspiring and relevant possibilities; those seeking a guidebook to utopia will, like the individuals profiled here, have to draw it themselves.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

From the Publisher
“If talk of politics makes you pine for a life away from Twitter and cable news and the rest, Mark Sundeen's The Unsettlers offers a few tips for how to build a sustainable future." —The New York Times Book Review

“[Sundeen] relays the homesteaders’ stories with fierce curiosity and empathy...an enlightening read... [and] exceptional reporting on a topic that we’d all be wise to familiarize ourselves with, especially in the shadow of an indefatigably evil administration.” —Paris Review

“A fascinating, timely, and deeply personal examination of what it means to be a non-conformist in the modern age."—Outside
“A well-crafted, intimate portrait.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] deftly written study.”—Nature

"A seriously fascinating and inspiring read. It's a book for anyone who has ever wondered how to live more sustainably, more consciously, and also a bit more crazily (in a wow-how-can-they-live-without-the-internet? kind of way). Mark is a terrific writer and I was absorbed by every page of this deep, insightful examination of the lives of a handful of Americans who choose to live differently.”—Cheryl Strayed, from her Instagram

“By framing the book as a search for answers, not arguments, Sundeen fills [The Unsettlers] with empathy and curiosity. Each section is distinguished by strong reporting, and Sundeen’s admiration for his subjects is clear.” —The Rumpus

“Context is everything in this carefully and affectionate­ly reported account of idealists working not to leave the real world behind, but to make it better.”—BookPage

“There is a fullness and complexity to each of these tales that is impressive and illustrates a feat of cerebral strength on the part of Sundeen.”—Albuquerque’s Weekly Alibi

“One of the more refreshing reads to hit shelves in 2017.”—Signature Reads

"Well researched, immediately engaging, immensely readable, and ultimately inspiring. This is the perfect read for DIY-types with dreams of saving the world, or at least their own backyards.” —Booklist

“Homesteading loses its reality TV show sheen in the hands of Sundeen…From dirt roads in rural Missouri to Detroit’s foreclosed streets, Sundeen reports how people throughout the United States have chosen to live simple but never simply…these pages will leave any reader with a penchant for sustainability to question their own carbon footprint.” —Library Journal

“Engaging, honest, and deeply personal…[Sundeen’s] superb reporting produces revealing portraits of modern hippies…inspiring… Provocative reading for anyone who has ever yearned for a life of radical simplicity.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Sundeen…ask[s] important questions about technology, the economy, and the moral implications of being both critic and participant in our society.” —Publisher’s Weekly

"From a crop of orphaned garlic plants in Detroit to a tipi birth in Montana, Mark Sundeen’s The Unsettlers is rigorously reported and utterly enthralling. With candor, wit, and live-voltage curiosity, Sundeen profiles pioneers who have developed better ways to live in our overdeveloped world. The Unsettlers isn’t in the business of guilt or shame mongering, but it will certainly—if you have a pulse and a laptop, or even an electrical socket—make you question how you live in the world as well." 
—Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams

“With his chronicles of modern-day American visionaries and iconoclasts who have opted out of the mainstream culture, I’ve come to think of Mark Sundeen as our poet laureate of a new era of alternative lifestyles.”
—Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

“You say you want a revolution? These stories of “unsettlers” striving to lead more simple lives are an inspiration as well as a dose of reality on how difficult that can be. This is an important book.”
—Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia

"The Unsettlers portrait of six true-hearted heroes of husbandry pitted against the Corporate Person would put the fear of God in that monster if it had a pulse. Sundeen’s opus combines fierce reasoning, romance, impeccable research, the narrative pull of a thriller, and the subliminal magic of some wondrous old myth as he takes the measure of America’s betrayed yearning for a living, thriving earth."—David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K 

Praise for The Man Who Quit Money:

“Captivating . . . Sundeen brings his subject vividly to life [and] makes a case for Suelo’s relevance to our time.” —The Seattle Times

“Sundeen deftly portrays [Suelo] as a likeable, oddly sage guy . . . who finds happiness in radical simplicity [and] personifies a critique that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt remorse on the treadmill of getting and spending.” —Outside

“Exquisitely timed . . . a slim, quick read that belies the weightiness underneath.” —Missoula Independent

“A fascinating subject . . . both resonant as a character study and infinitely thought-provoking in its challenge to all our preconceptions about modern life—and about the small and large hypocrisies people of all philosophies and religious paths assume they need to accept.”
—Salt Lake City Weekly

Library Journal
In recent years, going off the grid as a modern-day homesteader has become idealized after glamorized depictions in popular culture and on social media. However, homesteading loses its reality TV show sheen in the hands of Sundeen (The Man Who Quit Money), portraying this humble lifestyle choice as more gritty than romantic. From dirt roads in rural Missouri to Detroit's foreclosed streets, Sundeen reports how people throughout the United States have chosen to live simple but never simply. In the footsteps of Wendell Berry's classic The Unsettling of America, which offered a call to find one's roots and unsettle America, here we meet three couples who are willing to create their own vision of success. While never preachy, these pages will leave any reader with a penchant for sustainability to question their own carbon footprint. VERDICT An engaging read for those with an interest in sustainable living, urban farming, and homesteading.—Angela Forret, Clive P.L., IA
Kirkus Reviews
Bright update on the perennial back-to-the-land movement.In this engaging, honest, and deeply personal account, Outside correspondent Sundeen (The Man Who Quit Money, 2012, etc.) tells the stories of three American families who have pursued alternative ways of living. Eschewing conveniences, materialism, and "the compromises of contemporary life," each has joined a movement consisting of "local food and urban farms, bike coops and time banks and tool libraries, permaculture and guerrilla gardening, homebirthing and homeschooling and home cooking." In researching their adventures in homesteading, Sundeen hoped to learn for himself how to lead a good life. Though his personal reflections meander, sometimes annoyingly, his superb reporting produces revealing portraits of modern hippies: Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox, pursuing off-the-grid lives of secular utopianism and religious activism as farmers in the intentional community of Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri; Olivia Hubert and Greg Willerer, working to create "a new economic model of food distribution" through Brother Nature Produce, an urban farm in violence-wracked Detroit; and Luci Brieger and Steve Elliott, a middle-aged farming couple in Victor, Montana, with three kids and a $40,000 yearly income, who have rejected the internet and popular culture in "uncompromising pursuit of an ethical life" in the local food movement. These unsettlers' early backgrounds vary from privileged to poor to hippie, but Sundeen shows how all take "true joy in work," seek constructive ways of living in society, and reap considerable rewards in their simple lives of voluntary poverty. The author is especially good at showing the difficulty of raising children in a connected society while wondering, as one iconoclast says here, "how do we fight the Man if we continue to buy his cheeseburgers?" He places these often inspiring, sometimes self-righteous families firmly in the American utopian tradition and traces the pervasive influences of authors from Tolstoy to Helen and Scott Nearing to Wendell Berry. Provocative reading for anyone who has ever yearned for a life of radical simplicity.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.90(d)

Meet the Author

Mark Sundeen is the author of several books, including The Man Who Quit Money and the coauthor of North by Northwestern, which was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. He has taught fiction and nonfiction in the MFA creative writing programs at the University of New Mexico and Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife divide their time between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Moab, Utah.

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