This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak

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

“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 

In a work of power and beauty reminiscent of Tobias Wolff, Jeannette Walls, and Dave Eggers, Melissa Coleman delivers a luminous, evocative childhood memoir exploring the hope and struggle behind her family's search for a sustainable lifestyle. With echoes of The Liars’ Club and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Coleman’s searing chronicle tells the true story of her upbringing on communes and sustainable farms along the rugged Maine coastline in the 1970’s, embedded within a moving, personal quest for truth that her experiences produced.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061958335
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/10/2012
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 883,711
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

As a freelance writer, Melissa Coleman has covered lifestyle, health, and travel. She lives in Freeport, Maine, with her husband and twin daughters.

Read an Excerpt

This Life Is In Your Hands

One Dream, Sixty Acres, And A Family Undone
By Melissa Coleman


Copyright © 2011 Melissa Coleman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-195832-8

Chapter One

FOR THE FIRST nine years of my life, Greenwood Farm was my
little house in the big woods, located as long ago and far away
up the coast of Maine as it was from mainstream America. Five
hours from Boston, three from Portland, along winding roads
that became successively narrower from Belfast to Bucksport to
Penobscot, until they finally turned to dirt. If you were a bird,
you could shorten the trip at Camden by cutting over the scatterings
of fir- pointed islands on Penobscot Bay— North Haven,
Butter Island, Great Spruce Head, Deer Isle. Viewed from above,
the islands formed bright constellations in the dark sky of water,
a mirror of the universe leading you back in time.
Just past Pond Island, you'd see the forested head of Cape
Rosier reaching into the sea from the mainland and a sandy line
of beach, beyond which a narrow road wound up through a
berry field and disappeared into a dappled stretch of forest. A
mile in, our land was surrounded by the cape's uniform blanket of
fir, spruce, and the purple scrub of blueberry barrens.
On a morning in early April of 1969, as my future parents
were clearing brush under the bare crown of the ash tree next to
their new home, two sparrows circled once, twice, then alighted
on a branch to announce their arrival with a familiar melody of
clicks and tweets. Surprised by the song, Mama raised her head
to spot the diminutive brown birds with patches of white at the
throat. "The white-throat," she exclaimed, an armload of brush
resting on the pronounced swell of her belly. She'd always loved
sparrows best—so joyous in their simplicity. "They mate for life
and come back every year to the same place to build a nest," she
added, having checked it in her Peterson's before.
"A sure sign of spring," Papa replied, giving a low whistle
through his teeth before returning with renewed vigor to his
work. Easter would fall that Sunday, though they'd lost track of
such dates by then—spring was a resurrection with or without a
It was not the spring of hyacinth, lily of the valley, and drunken
bumblebees, but the New England spring that comes just before
mud season. The last pockets of snow melted away as rain fell
from the sky in steady gray sheets, filling hollows and ruts with
dark puddles. Ice crystals released their hold on soil that sank
into a primordial muck.
"Son of a gun," Papa said. "The ruts in the driveway are up
to my knee." The white VW truck wallowed like a pig when he
revved up and tried to drive through. Sometimes he made it,
sometimes he didn't.
"Looks like we'd be having the baby at home even if we didn't
want to," he said after one unsuccessful attempt.
Mama's belly was the perfect half round of the wooden bread-
mixing bowl, a defined mound under her favorite anorak with
the fur- trimmed hood. It appeared before her when she exited
the outhouse and entered the door of the farmhouse. Her face
was round too, glowing like the moon. Standing at the kitchen
counter preparing lunch, she looked normal from behind, but
when Papa came and put his arms around her, they could rest
on the curve of her belly as his hands searched for the shape of
a foot or leg.
"There, Eliot, there again," Mama said. "Movement."
His larger hand pressed next to hers, waiting for another kick.
"Yes, I felt it," he said. "I really did that time."
"It could be any day now," Mama said. She felt something
changing inside, a slowing down and getting ready.
Scientists say my waiting self could already hear the chirp
of Mama's voice, the ha-has of Papa's laughter, the thump of
feet and the click of Normie's dog's paws on the wooden floor
of the farmhouse. There would have been the shush of sweeping,
the crack- shatter of Papa chopping kindling, an explosion
of firewood dropped into the bin, the crunch of gravel outside,
goats bleating as they waited to be milked, water splashing at
the spring. Most of all, I would have felt the constant sound of
Mama's heart beating, a steady drumbeat on a rawhide surface,
blood rushing through valves into arteries and capillaries, keeping
me alive. A new home awaited, one Mama and Papa had
worked hard to make safe from what they saw as the dangers of
the outside world.
SIX MONTHS EARLIER, on October 21, 1968, my parents had
moved from Franconia College in New Hampshire to a make-
shift camper on the sixty wooded acres Helen and Scott Nearing
sold them for $2,000. There was no mail service, no telephone
or electrical wires, no plumbing. All of that ended a mile down
the road at the Nearings'. Mail was picked up at the post office,
the one public building in Harborside, a tiny town located four
miles from the homestead along the western side of Cape Rosier's
coast. Calls were made fifteen minutes away on a pay phone at
a store off the cape in Bucks Harbor, also home to the famous
Condon's Garage, where Sal gets a spark plug as condolence for
her lost tooth in the children's book One Morning in Maine.
"Cape Rosier looks like the profile of a moose's head." Mama
pointed out to Papa on the map. Holbrook Island and its neighbors
to the north made the distinctive shape of horns above the dot for
the town of Harborside, a round unnamed pond in the middle
was the eye, the head of the cape was the nose, and the Breeze-
mere Peninsula hung below like a chin under an open mouth. This
moose head appeared to be almost an island, with only a thin
neck holding it to the mainland. They laughed when they learned
that the Indian name for the cape was Mose- ka- chick, which
actually meant "moose's rump."
Their sixty- some acres made a nostril in the moose's snout,
about a mile from the ocean and two hundred feet in elevation
above it. A dirt road wound up from Nearings' Cove to curve along
the southern edge of the property before heading back out to the
sea on the other side. Across the way were the undulating rock
and scrub of a blueberry barren, and beyond that stretched the
uninhabited head of the cape at the tip of the moose's nose.
The site of my future home was only a rise in the forest
surrounded by spruce and fir, a cluster of birch, and the large ash
with its healthy crown of branches. "This seems like a good place
to begin," Papa had said, standing beside the tree. "We'll have to
start building right away before winter."
"A home of our own, at last." Mama sighed, and that image
alone soothed her. She felt a twinge in her stomach, like a feather
stroking the inside, and hugged her expanding belly with her arms.
She hadn't realized how homeless she'd been up until that point.
While Mama's father was Harvard- educated and her mother
descended from a passenger on the Mayflower, they never aspired
to be part of wealthy Boston society or had the money to become
so. Papa's parents, Skates and Skipper, though not rich, were in
the Social Register and part of the beach, tennis, and country club
circles of Rumson, New Jersey. "Fonsy people," Mama liked to
joke with a blue- blood affectation. Young and in love, my parents
hoped to make their way without concern for the Social Register
and Harvard degrees and to leave behind their respective family
affairs— shuffling off the shell of the past to grow a future of their
own making.
During the last two weeks of October, Papa shoveled out a hole
eight feet deep, six feet wide, and ten feet long— where the root
cellar would sit beneath the house— and laid the foundation with
rot- resistant cedar posts. A self- taught carpenter and woodworker,
Papa learned from odd jobs and projects, including renovating
the interior of the hunting lodge where they lived in Franconia.
Though he'd never actually built a home before, he had a book,
Your Engineered House by Rex Roberts, that broke down the
process into an easy- to- follow plan.
He sketched a layout based on the blueprint in the book,
eighteen by twenty feet, slightly longer than wide, with south- facing
windows in the front. A shed roof rose from the back at an angle
and extended past the face to provide an overhang for the front
porch. Reverse board- and- batten construction would be used for
the exterior siding, as Roberts suggested— meaning the inner
wall studs made the seal beneath the exterior boards to save on
wood. After the $2,000 for the land and other expenses, their
$5,000 savings was dwindling quickly. Papa wished he could have
cut and used the trees from the property, but there wasn't time to
let the wood cure, so the lumber came from the local sawmill—
cedar posts, planed pine boards, and two- by- fours. Regardless,
they were able to keep the cost down to $680 to build the house
we called home for the next ten years, at a time when the national
average for a home in town was closer to $20,000.
Papa's tools consisted of a handsaw, hammer, level,
measuring tape and carpenter's square. On top of the foundation he
laid the beams that supported the floor, then the corner and roof
supports and wall studs. He nailed on the floorboards, roof, and
walls, leaving breaks for windows. Rock wool insulation was un-
rolled between the studs, and black tar paper served for exterior
roofing. The easy part was that there were no electrical wires or
plumbing to worry about, no refrigerator, washer, dryer, toilet,
bath, or other appliances to buy. Food would be stored in the root
cellar, accessed by a trapdoor from the kitchen, and the bath-
room was an A- frame outhouse located in the woods at the edge
of the clearing.
As Papa worked on the house, Mama returned to Franconia
with a trailer attached to the VW truck for the rest of their things.
Noticeably pregnant, she managed to move the cast-iron cook-
stove onto the trailer with the help of friends. Next she herded
the goats and chickens into the back of the VW and drove the
seven hours to the farm. The chickens lived in a coop next to the
camper, and the goats ran free. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and
the Monkees drifted in from the outside world on the battery-
powered transistor radio as Mama and Papa cooked over a
portable Coleman stove and showered with a plastic bag of water
hung from a nail to warm in the sun. The camper was cramped
and cluttered, but they kept up the illusion that they were on an
expedition and it was base camp.
The first snow fell while Papa worked beneath the protection
of the new roof. "We can't move in until it's done, otherwise
we'll get used to it like this and never finish," he told Mama. The
interior walls took shape, with planed pine boards nailed
vertically from floor to ceiling over the insulation. To the front of the
side door sat the wood cook stove, surrounded by an L- shaped
counter with an embedded stainless steel sink, a ship's nautical
water pump, and a water container below. A dining table made
of varnished pine boards and crossed- log legs, with tree stumps
for chairs, sat beneath the tall south- facing windows looking
out under the overhanging roof. The far back corner walls were
covered with bookshelves above built- in L- shaped benches that
Mama would cover with maroon padded mats for a "sofa." In the
corner behind the kitchen, a raised sleeping loft over closet
storage formed the bedroom space. The only appliances were a
galvanized grain mill clamped to the kitchen counter, the radio, and
kerosene lanterns.
On a walk along the coast with the goats, Mama found a piece
of driftwood that she carved and painted with their names, "Eliot
and Sue Coleman," and nailed to a post where the rutted path to
the house left the public dirt road. By December 1, a little over a
month after they started, Papa declared the house complete. As
anticipated, the four- hundred- square- foot space felt like a
mansion after the cramped camper, and the accumulating snow made
its comforts all the more welcome.


Excerpted from This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman Copyright © 2011 by Melissa Coleman. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Family 7

2 Livelihood 45

3 Sustenance 69

4 Seclusion 85

5 Companions 101

6 Water 125

7 Tribe 149

8 Paradise 187

9 Bicentennial 221

10 Loss 247

11 Atonement 261

12 Mercy 287

Epilogue 317

Acknowledgments 322

List of Illustrations 324

What People are Saying About This

Heidi Julavits

“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.”

Tom Perrotta

“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.”

Ann Hood

“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.”

Wally Lamb

“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.”

Peter Behrens

“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.”

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This Life Is in Your Hands 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 29 reviews.
JackieBNY More than 1 year ago
While I found this memoir quite readable, there is something missing here. The author recounts her first nine years of life with her parents who rejected modern life and chose to live off the land in rural Maine during the height of the counter-culture 60's and early 70's. I had great sympathy for the child she was, but that's about as far as we get. Ms. Coleman provides absolutely no insight into either the times or her parents' own choices and relationships. Her brief comments on the "back-to-the-land" movement, which are scattered throughout the book, are so simplistic as to seem directed at middle-schoolers. Moreover, she provides absolutely no analysis of what was going on in her parents' relationship when tragedy struck. Because there is no insight and no analysis one reacts a bit like the locals in the surrounding community: they seem like a bunch of "hippies" with no direction. Because the author fails to provide any "adult" or intellectual/psychological insight, the reader is left to objectively assess what looks like real negligence regarding the care and oversight of young children. I feel sad for the author, and particularly her mother, but that is about it. Unfortunately, there's really nothing else here.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This Life is in Your Hands is a beautifully told story that highlights what it is to strive for our ideals and suffer the fallibilities of being human. Melissa Coleman has captured the alluring magic of her childhood growing up as part of the "back to the land" movement while also describing the eventual disintegration of life and family as she knew it. The prevailing culture is described in striking contrast to the ideals her parents and others like them embraced at the time. There are many learning opportunities here as more people look to simplify their lives but it also serves as a reminder that no choices can guarantee safety or security. It is a truly wonderful story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There's a lot in this story: the back-to-the-land movement, the life of a family, and the impact of a tragedy. Just like the subject matter, there's a wide emotional range: funny, thought-provoking, and sometimes achingly sad. For all these reasons - for what I learned and what I felt, I loved this beautifully written book.
Dana77 More than 1 year ago
The homesteading life this family chose is a complete departure from what I think of as "normal" that I found it fascinating. Why anyone would choose to live in "poverty" is not something I can begin to understand. I respect those that do and it does make for an intereresting story, but why would anyone give up modern amenities? Since becoming a mom I have become more aware of the sources of our food and the issue of corn in this country. I didn't realize that since the 1960s and 70s people have been fighting unsafe practices and such. I loved that the author was able to weave political and social cultural issues into the backdrop of her story. This adds to the relevancy, especially now that we're looking back over the course of 40 years and can see where history has led us. I cannot imagine trying to nurture a marriage and raise two children all the while working a farm and needing it to be successful so that I could eat, have some money under my couch cushions, and plain old survive. I would crumble under that pressure. I admired thet author's mother especially. Not an easy life. I disagree with JackieBNYs review (Interesting but flawed). There are hints at the author's parents' deteriorating marriage after the birth of Heidi or that this is written for a middle-school audience. Absolutely not. I would have been more interested in the reactions of family members (both came from upper-middle class families) about their children rejecting modern life, but what child is going to be privy to that information?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We did the same thing in York ME. Her book was great, it was the times and a new attitude among many. Sad that her story had such tragedy. Not many made it happen but her story is well worth the read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully and well written. A must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is great, especially if you are of the "baby boomer" generation, and at one time wanted to live off the land.
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luvthesun More than 1 year ago
It was hard to get through, too much repetition.
IEatBoogers More than 1 year ago
Amazing story of back to the landers. This is a unusually well written memoir. A life few of us have lived.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
McGuffyAnn More than 1 year ago
To say this book is a beautifully written memoir does not do it justice. Melissa Coleman tells the story of her parents and what moved them not to be hippies, but to be true back-to-nature farmers. They were not interested in the drug culture, altering their minds, or a commune way of life. They wanted only to provide a natural, simple, down to earth life for themselves and their family. Following the example, of Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of Living the Good Life, Eliot and Sue Coleman forged out a sixty acre farm on coastal Maine. It is there they built their home, and then had first Melissa and later her sister, Heidi. Melissa tells the story of her family, their farm and the simpler way of life they embraced. She writes of a childhood full of eating wild blueberries, running naked in the rain, making homemade bread, chopping wood and gathering seaweed. It is a full and happy life for the Coleman's. There comes a point though, when Melissa's parent's relationship is strained and pulled apart by outside influences and stresses. Not long after, the sudden tragic death of her three year old sister tears the family and all that it was, all that it stood for apart, leaving only broken dreams in its wake. Melissa is left to neighbors as her family disintegrates. This book is Melissa Coleman's search to sort through her families dreams, to make sense of what happened and why, how such beauty could have gone so awry. She looks to answer how one can find forgiveness when there is no actual blame. Truly, a thread of wisdom winds throughout her book, as she teaches us the price of sacrifice and the value of forgiveness.
moonbeamKM More than 1 year ago
This is a story of strength, persistence, forgiving, and love. It's amazing to me what people have had to experience in their lives and it is good to read about how they adapted and were able to come through it with flying colors. It was hard to put the book down - I wanted to keep finding out what was going to happen next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! Couldnt wait to find out how it ends. Inspired by the authors incredible insight at such a young age. The only reason i didnt give it a 5 is because i would like to know more about her "after" story. But worth the read!
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lioness2001 More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago