Bright Book Gives a Fresh Glimpse of The Good Life
By Jean Hay Bright.
2003, BrightBerry Press.
370 pages, $20
by Ellen Booream
Special to The Ellsworth American
ELLSWORTH—Hancock County residents of the past two decades will remember the short-haired Jean Hay as newspaper reporter, columnist, Blue Hill farm stand operator and two-time congressional candidate.
Before all that, she had a different last name, she had braids down to her waist and she lived in a cabin next to Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible “Living the Good Life” and a succession of other books about their practices and beliefs. The cabin was on 25 acres the famed back-to-the-land pioneers had sold to her and her then-husband, named in the book only as “Keith,” in the village of Harborside on Brooksville’s Cape Rosier.
Now she’s Jean Hay Bright, married to a former editor and living in Dixmont, where the couple is developing an organic pick-your-own berry operation. In addition, the Brights operate BrightBerry Press, which in September published Jean Hay Bright’s memoir of the six years she lived next to the Nearings.
The book also offers a couple of chapters examining the ways in which Bright says the Nearings’ lifestyle departed from their published instructions to their disciples.
This reviewer once was responsible for editing Jean Hay, as reporter and columnist, and retains tremendous respect and affection for her. That said, this reviewer was not at all expecting a level-headed account of the author’s first marriage and homesteading experiences. Jean Hay could be opinionated, to put it mildly.
Any autobiography tells just one side of the story, and any reader does well to remember that. But this one is remarkably even-toned. When the author has something controversial or unpleasant to tell us, she does so efficiently and moves on. Even her ex-husband seems to the unacquainted reader to come off fairly well, although he probably doesn’t agree.
She uses real names for the most part. Some names, however, are strategically disguised.
Bright doesn’t break much news about the Nearings that hasn’t floated around before, either in private conversations or in a periodical. But she does it all in one place, with research. She makes it clear that she does not intend to discredit the crux of what the Nearings believed and accomplished. It’s clear that she continues to respect both Nearings, and to love Helen.
Her purpose is simply to point out that the young homesteaders of the 1970s set off for The Good Life thinking that you could make it work the way the Nearings said they did—spending four hours a day on survival, four hours on intellectual pursuits and four hours socializing—and that you could do it without an inheritance or other outside funds.
Bright says you couldn’t.
“One day, well after Scott had died, I decided to broach the subject which had long been a matter of heated debate among those of us who had tried to function within the confines of their [the Nearings] stated economic bounds,” Bright writes. “I asked Helen the question.
“And she admitted to me that ‘of course’ both she and Scott ‘had money’ from sources other than their cash crops and books. She was reluctant to elaborate.”
Bright and her first husband actually did manage to make a go of homesteading, with only the outside income they earned with their own hands. Her husband did carpentry and other chores for pay. Jean sold baked goods and did a little clerical work for the Nearings as well as eventually putting her pre-homesteading journalism skills to work for the Bangor Daily News.
Three-quarters of Bright’s memoir is the saga of that successful effort, told through her own recollections and sometimes lengthy quotations from her letters to her mother. She is a good writer, and saves the reader from drudgery with a puckish sense of humor.
The tale starts in December 1971 when Bright and her first husband—her high-school sweetheart and a Vietnam veteran—visit the Nearings with a copy of “Living the Good Life” in the back seat of their Volkswagen camper. Something about the young couple impresses the Nearings, who several months later offer to sell them some of their land.
The young couple fells trees, digs and pours footings and salvages fixtures for a cabin. They plant a garden and fill a root cellar with canned and long-keeping produce. They raise chickens, pigs, goats, and at one point a cow, having discovered that the Nearings’ vegetarian regimen is not for them.
They learn the Nearings’ knack for turning visiting admirers into volunteer labor, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for weeks.
They have two children. Jean shakes off her “good girl” Youngstown, Ohio, upbringing and learns to love a group sauna.
The couple and their neighbors survive the threat of a nuclear power plant site in their front yards, as well as the almost unbearable tragedy of a neighborhood child’s death by drowning.
The last quarter of the book fills us in briefly on Bright’s life after her marriage breaks up in 1978, as well as the later lives of their Cape Rosier neighbors. Her political experiences alone could be the subject for a sequel.
She devotes a full chapter each to the deaths of first Scott and then Helen Nearing. He died in 1983 at the age of 100, she in 1995 after a car crash.
Bright reprints in full several newspaper accounts of the Nearings’ lives and commentaries on their deaths. Some of the commentaries were hers, published in the Bangor Daily and The Weekly Packet in Blue Hill, and repeat anecdotes she’s told earlier in the book. It’s too much.
There are several places, in fact, where this book could have used sterner editing. Just skim them, confident that something more entertaining is just around the bend.
If you once thought fleetingly about trying to survive on the land, this book will make you alternately wistful and thankful that you didn’t. If you’re still thinking about it, read this book right after you finish one by the Nearings.
Other Book Reviews for "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life"!
WomenWriters.Net, June 2004
Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, March-May 2004
Maine Sunday Telegram (Portland Press Herald), January 18, 2004
Rutland Herald and Times-Argus in Vermont, December 13, 2003
Penobscot Bay Press, Dec. 4, 2003
Amazon.com Review, Nov. 25, 2003
Bangor Daily News, Nov. 17, 2003
Author Susan Hand Shetterly, Oct. 23, 2003
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