This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone is a memoir by Melissa Coleman that got a lot of attention last year when it first came out. Coleman's parents, Eliot and Sue, were among the first back-to-the-landers of the late 60s and 70s. They moved to a plot of land in rural Maine that adjoined the farm of Helen and Scott Nearing, the couple who wrote Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, which is the book credited with inspiring the movement. Eliot and Sue built their own home, grew their own food, and Sue gave birth to two little girls while they did it. It sounds Edenic, particularly for children, and partly, it was. (This NYT review of the book does a good job of describing the basic events of This Life is In Your Hands and also the sort of see-sawing the book does between the poetry of the family's life, rooted as it was in nature, and an increasing sense of ominousness.)
It's easy for people who have never attempted to be self-sufficient through farming to romanticize the idea (witness the current resurgence of what Emily Matchar calls the New Domesticity, which admittedly doesn't seem as hard-core a movement) but the fact is that it makes for a very hard life. (I am guilty of romanticizing it myself -- in high school I gave a speech on my version of "the good life" in which I would retreat with my little family to a cabin in the woods, where I would homeschool my children and we would all survive, I guess, on nuts and berries.) Coleman, who is now a nationally recognized expert on organic gardening, actually had a thyroid disorder, largely untreated, that spurred him on to ceaseless physical labour. And if I were going to try to accomplish what he did, I think I'd want one, too. From Melissa Coleman's descriptions of her mother, Sue, it seems to me that she suffered terribly from post-partum depression and that this was horribly compounded by the relentless, back-breaking work that homesteading actually entailed, not to mention possible malnutrition.
Now here is where the spoiler comes in. Consider yourself warned. One day, busy preparing a feast for some visitors (as if she doesn't have enough to do), Sue shoos Melissa's little sister Heidi, who is around three at the time I think, out of the cabin, telling her to go float her toy boat on the pond. Heidi actually comes back once or twice, begging for attention, and Sue turns her away. You can guess what happened to Heidi down at the pond. She drowned.
Melissa Coleman doesn't blame her mother for this in the book, but she doesn't exactly absolve her, either. After reading it I was left feeling absolutely bereft for the poor woman, whom I was unable to track down via google, hoping to learn she has found some sort of peace. And I must admit I was also left feeling a bit pissed off about Eliot Coleman's (and the Nearings') subsequent success as folk heroes.
Now of course children die. They die in car accidents in suburbia and of childhood cancers and all kinds of things. But all it takes is a short stroll through a pioneer-era graveyard to see how many children died when there was no choice for anyone but a "lifestyle" of relentless physical labour in order to put food on the table. A lot of those deaths were from childhood diseases we can now vaccinate against (if we aren't against vaccinating) but many of them were from accidents that happened when parents didn't have the time and the energy to hover over their kids.