When Melissa Coleman '91 studied abroad in Tibet her junior year of college, where she stayed in a house with no electricity, she felt more at home than she had in years. The boarding school she attended outside of Boston and her room in UVM's Coolidge Hall on Redstone Campus were worlds far removed from her simple upbringing in a cabin her father had built by hand, with no power and no running water.
"I think I always felt connected to third-world communities and cultures because of the way I grew up," she admits. "I felt right at home over there; it was very similar to my childhood."
Coleman's memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, tells the story of what happened during the first nine years of her childhood on a farm in northern Maine. Her parents, spurred by the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and 70s, purchased the property for $2,000 and endeavored to self-subsist. Eschewing most modern technologies and industrial agricultural practices, they worked the land the old-fashioned way: relying on organic practices to produce a crop that could feed their vegetarian family even through the darkest days of a long, northern winter.
It is a story neither Coleman nor her parents had spoken much about in the years since. "You always bumped into the sadness when you went back to it," she explains.
When times were good, it was a glorious life: Melissa and her sister Heidi playing make-believe in idyllic pastures and woods by the sea, their parents reveling in the pride of a true do-it-yourself lifestyle. But loneliness, depression, marital strain and ultimately, a heartbreaking tragedy that claimed Heidi's life would blacken those years on the farm and unravel Coleman's life as she knew it.
But when Coleman became a parent herself — to twin girls — she felt a need to confront that past. "When I had my kids, I started to have troubles with my mom and also had this fear — what if something happened to them like what happened to my sister? That's why i had to write the book then — to get over that."
What awaited Coleman in her writing research — which included speaking with her parents, tracking down the interns who helped out at the farm, reading her mother's journals — was a discovery of how much joy there had been, too. "I just had to push through the sadness to get at the joy that was there. And that was a gift."
The other reward for having crafted such a raw and gripping memoir has been the widespread acclaim it's received — from The New York Times, O and People magazines, the Boston Globe, and NPR. "It's what every author pictures is going to happen when their book comes out, but it very rarely does," Coleman says. "I just feel so grateful. I feel very, very grateful."