Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review - This Life Is in Your Hands: One Family, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone by Melissa Coleman

Title: This Life Is in Your Hands: One Family, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone 
Author: Melissa Coleman
Year: 2011
Page: 352
Genre: Non-Fiction - Memoir

FTC Disclosure: ARC from HarperCollins

Summary (from

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. 

First Sentence:
We must have asked our neighbor Helen to read our hands that day.

My Thoughts:

Why this book?
  • This book was compared to Jeanette Walls' The Class Castle, which happened to be one of my favorite memoirs. So how could I not resist, even though I am not really interested in the self-sustaining/farming/homestead lifestyle (I kill even cacti.) 
First thought:
  • I wish I didn't read the jacket copy because I think it revealed too much, and kinda ruined the surprises (I made sure the description above doesn't have it.) Even the prologue might be giving away too much
Cover Art:
  • I think it's goes with the book very well, especially the green! And look at the happy child with the big plants!
  • I guess fitting though not as catchy as some others. I kept thinking it's called This Life is in MY hands (as opposed to yours)
  • Some described her writing style as lyrical, so it's a little too flowery for my taste. I enjoyed the first half of the book better, and the second half seemed to have a slower pace and I got a bit bored and inpatient 
  • I enjoyed reading about how the author's parents chose this lifestyle, and what it meant for their children. I definitely can't imagine myself living like so - I like my modern technology or even just a flushing toilet too much!
  • The story jumped between past and present a bit and it got a little confusing - I didn't keep track, but it didn't seem like all the past events mentioned were in chronological order. That could also be due to the fact that there were more characters mentioned in the book
  • The book ended a bit abruptly and I wish the author included an epilogue to explain why she decided to continue or not continue that lifestyle 
  • The author was honest with her account - she didn't try to hide the facts that might make the readers think her parents and their friends (particularly the Nearings) were a little hypocritical in some of the choices they made - I don't want to include spoilers, but for those who read the book, you might remember the boy goats, the oranges, the winter trips, and so forth)
  • There were also lots of "interns" who lived with her family or nearby each summer, and I lost track of who they were even if they made repeated apperance
  • I don't know how I feel about her parents - I could understand why they chose this lifestyle and they seemed like loving parents, but is this lifestyle really best for kids? I also wish the author explored a little more on her parents' relationship in the later years about some of the decisions they made
  • Okay, there WAS an epilogue in the book, but I think it could go into a bit more depth about the author's own adult lifestyle choice, and what she thought of her parents' decision. She seemed like a happy child, but what did she think of her childhood now that she's an adult and have her own children?
  • I think it would have more impact on me if I didn't know about the significant event that happened, and since I knew about it, I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for it to happen...
What I Learned:
  • I didn't know a lot about how hard it was to live a self-sustaining lifestyle, and why people would willing choose to do so - don't get me wrong, I don't think there is anything wrong to try to grow as much vegetables as you can, make you own this-and-that, but I guess the bigger question is where do you draw the line?
  • I am glad I read this, but I prefer Jeanette Walls' writing style which really engaged me. It took me 6 days to finish this book (reading "part time" only since I work full time) which is longer than my usual 2-3 days. 
  • I think a challenge in reviewing memoir is staying focus on how the authors deliver their stories, and not judge the choices or action they (or their family) made.
  • The author's parents' mentors, the Nearings, believed in spending 3 hours of doing each of these activities each day: HEAD (intellectual like reading), HAND (working like farming) and HEART (society like helping friends). While it sounds good in theory, I wish I only have to work 3 hours a day :) 
Read this Author again?
  • Perhaps, depends on what it is


Looking down at his hands, he realized that they were his most valuable tool in this quest (p47)

"Most important for making this homesteading experience work, is having needs precede wants," Mama wrote in her journal that evening. (p104)

Overall Rating:
3 Stars. I kept trying to decide whether this would be a 3 or 3.5 Stars for me. I decided that it would be 3.5 if the writing was a little less flowery, if the second half of the book was a bit more fast-paced, and if the prologue didn't give away too much (not sure if the author wrote the jacket copy or not, and that gave away even more than the prologue).

All reviews and posts are copyrighted by Christa @ Mental Foodie. Please do not use or reprint them without written permission.


  1. Looking back, I would have liked more of an epilogue too -- how did the author get from the end of the events in the book to the point of actually writing this book herself. I sot of wonder if that's something that might come up in any interviews she's done.

    I don't think the summary and copy gave away too much -- I was actually impressed with the way she built suspense even though that major plot point was already out there. But that's a style thing, so I'm sure there is lots of discussion on that point.

    Good review!

  2. @Kim - I agree, I wish she could have elaborated a bit more about then and now. I guess since I usually read murder / mystery / thriller / suspense fiction, I don't like to know ahead of time how the story ends or what the twists are! I want to be surprised! :) Granted, I had read a few other memoir whether I know how it ended (e.g. the child died, or in real crime, the victim died and killer caught) But I still want to at least have an unpredictable journey even if the ending is known.

  3. I'm also a big fan of Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle (and I liked Walls' Half-Broke Horses too.) Glad to hear that someone else found the style too flowery for their tastes. And I agree with the chronology being confusing, and I just read 50 pages of the book, instead of the whole thing.

    - Christy

  4. @agoodstoppingpoint - I liked Half-Broke Horses too - didn't think I would but I am glad I read it! Yeah the chronology thing happened in the rest of the book too... the first 50 pages were pretty representative of what the rest of the book was like.