Maine-ly Women Wordsmiths
A bi-monthly newsletter devoted to the words and works
of Maine’s women writers
Volume 4 Issue 1
Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life
Commentary by Theresa Wilton
In the 1970s, Helen and Scott Nearing, political dissidents and authors of several “back-to-the-land” books, became gurus to many young, idealistic people across the country who felt they were able to live the supposed simple life. With the current swing to decluttering and purging the unnecessary elements of our own lives, Jean Hay Bright’s book provides a refreshing look at what life was like for those within the Nearing circle. Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life is a compilation of journal entries, Hay Bright’s own thoughts, and snippets of letters exchanged between Hay Bright and her mother.
In 1971, while hunting for a parcel of land to explore the idea of homesteading, a serendipitous series of events led to Hay Bright and her then husband Keith meeting and becoming friends with the Nearings, and eventually buying some of their acreage at Cape Rosier, Maine.
Young and idealistic, they saw homesteading as a way of getting down to basics, back to nature, finding out the essence of what life was all about. This included felling and squaring timber for their house, bringing in running waster, raising goats and chickens, learning to make cheese, producing honey and harvesting and canning hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables annually.
As Hay Bright states, “Life was simple and naturally uncluttered…but not easy.” Debates over childhood vaccines, coping with canning lid shortages, dealing with drifter back-to-the-land wannabe’s, and fighting the (Central) Maine Power Co. over a nuclear power plant in their backyard are just some of the fascinating stories Hay Bright shares with the reader.
As the Nearings’ reputation grew, Jean and her husband learned to cope with clumsy media interviews and how to post land against trespass so as not to offend eccentric local sways—while at the same time raising a family, house sitting the Nearings’ home during their travels, supplying freshly baked goods to a seasonal vegetable stand and taking on stints as a local newspaper reporter. Her humorous stories of a possible CIA mole postmistress, town hall meetings, nude sauna and foot massage evenings, sinus flossing, a Jewish princess, and topless (female) peapickers left me laughing and wishing for more.
As in much of life, however, appearances can be deceiving. When temporary farm helper Becky and her $60,000 trust fund showed up, permanent cracks developed in Jean and Keith’s marriage and they went their separate ways.
In the final chapters, Hay Bright analyzes information unearthed from legal sources indicating that much of the Nearing “good life” was a façade. Contrary to their teachings, Helen and Scott did subscribe to animal labor, and vitamin shots to offset nutritional needs. Their blueberry and maple syrup cash crops did not follow the Nearings’ own economical theories; they relied on revenues from many sources unknown to others at the time. Buildings, we assume from their writings were built mostly by the Nearings and completed only with much outside, often volunteer assistance. Even Helen’s death in a single car crash is examined.
Hay Bright is a survivor. After the end of her first marriage, she tells of her work as a reporter, running a store and attempts at political life. A second marriage to David Bright finally led to the peace she’d been searching for.
Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life does not diminish the Nearing memory, or the effect they had on young people of the ‘70s. It places the events in perspective and updates the reader on the lives of those who lived it. At the same time, the book rid me of those rose-colored glasses; it brought an end to my own homesteading dreams—and I’m having trouble adapting.
Our thanks to Theresa Wilton, a subscriber from Woodstock, Canada, for this review.
Other Book Reviews for "Meanwhile, Next Door to the Good Life"!
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
Ellsworth American, Nov. 20, 2003
Bangor Daily News, Nov. 17, 2003
Author Susan Hand Shetterly, Oct. 23, 2003
WomenWriters.Net, June 2004
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