I’ve struggled with this review. While I think Melissa Coleman’s book deserves all the acclaim it will gather, I also have a serious problem with fictionalized memoir. Adding complexity, I have strong feelings about the movement that she (and I) grew up in.
This Life Is In Your Hands is an exceptionally beautiful telling of a story too rarely told, by a modern day Laura Ingalls Wilder.
This Life Is In Your Hands is a fictionalized memoir. Conversations, expressions, interactions are presented as directly factual where the narrator has no knowledge of events. Things in quotes may be imagined, not documented dialogue.
Each of these two sentences is true. Melissa Coleman relates conversations her parents had upon their meeting – conversations she could not have been present for and they are unlikely to have written down. She is also a gifted writer who has composed a memorable telling of her upbringing with far more forgiveness in her heart than I have. During this resurgence of food-as-medicine anti-technology all-organic glorification, her tale is even more important.
The author strongly defends her parents against charges of neglect, despite laying a strong case for parental neglect with her own words. As another child raised in the glow of kerosene lights and left to my own devices while my formerly affluent white parents found themselves through poverty, I think she is too kind. When she relates her public school experience, it rings very true for me. There are things to embrace in the lifestyle that her parents chose. If her parents had been present and engaged, not worn down by hard work and their own hubris, perhaps her story would have gone differently. Sadly, it did not.
Her most important message is that food is not medicine, organic will not solve all, and diet cannot prevent everything. (Having faced cancer at 39 and 43, with a sibling who became a type 1 diabetic at a young age, I certainly have trouble being polite to people who beg me to consider holistic and homeopathic care. Been there. Done that. Pass the modern medicine my way, please.) If there is a secondary flaw to This Life Is In Your Hands it would be the relationship between Coleman’s parents and their mentors. Her disappointment in them is obvious, the cause obscured. How she feels failed by them remains veiled. In all other respects, she has presented a brilliant illustration of her childhood and the forces that shaped it. After reading the book, my spouse largely agreed with my take. I asked him for a second opinion as I recognized my own experiences were coloring my feelings about the work. “Her mother would have been better off in a Burqa.” was his one sentence summary.* I am not sure I disagree.
I do think this is an important book, and an important read. Each generation has a certain amount of people exactly like her parents – driven to cast off what is wrong with their lives they go to the extreme edge. The Coleman’s eventually pulled back to make a contribution in the world of organic farming, a goal we can all recognize as in our interests. It’s the extreme edges that too often get overlooked.
*I have since come to understand that the burqa is not always externally imposed. I leave the comment in the interest of honesty, but did not have anti-Moslem intent.