Book Buzz: The Unsettlers

The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America by Mark Sundeen

Journalist Mark Sundeen’s previous book was about a man who has successfully lived without money for the past 15-plus years. The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America is also a study of idealism and the struggle to live an authentic life.

Sundeen follows three couples as they make dramatic life changes to create more sustainable lifestyles, with varying degrees of success. These new pioneers express their ethical dissent to the economy and the government by rejecting the “compromises of contemporary life,” seeking out off-the-grid, back-to-the-land lifestyles in Missouri, Montana, and Michigan.

Sight unseen, Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox buy an Amish farm in La Plata, Missouri, arriving by Amtrak and unboxing their bicycles to pedal there on dirt roads. One of the tenets of Possibility Alliance, the intentional community they plan to start in La Plata, is a rejection of petroleum dependence. In this conservative heartland community, Sarah and Ethan find their values to be surprisingly similar to their neighbors; families who also believe in hard work, frugality, self-reliance, and have moral qualms about supporting the federal government with tax dollars.

Brother Nature Produce is an urban farm in downtown Detroit on a city block partially reclaimed by nature, partially still the territory of dealers and addicts. When founders Olivia Hubert and Greg Willerer married, they bought a shotgun for themselves as a wedding present. Working with other urban farmers, they explore a new economic model of food distribution in this city often described as a food desert. Much has been written about Detroit recently, but Sundeen covers this territory from Olivia’s perspective as a black native Detroiter whose parents moved to the city from the South just months before the 1967 riots.

Curiosity about the sustainability of the voluntary simplicity lifestyle led Sundeen to Luci Brieger and Steve Elliott, now middle-aged, who raised three children on their farm in Victor, Montana, about 35 miles south of Missoula. Luci and Steve’s three-decade-long living experiment began in a kerosene lamp-lit teepee on the banks of Sweathouse Creek, where their first son was born. When Sundeen explained that he was writing a book about the simple life, no-nonsense and practical Luci responded that there is “nothing simple about it.”

The Unsettlers is not an idyllic tale of peace, love, and back-to-nature happiness. Sundeen—who will be in Bellingham Wed., Feb. 22 for a talk at Village Books—marvels at how incredibly hard these couples work, and how few indulgences their lifestyles permit. He also doesn’t shy from reporting their self-doubts and the compromises they inevitably make.

Although Possibility Alliance becomes a destination for visitors and those wishing to learn from them, Ethan and Sarah fail to attract full-time members to the community. Olivia and Greg end up moving their farm from Detroit to a small rural community north of the city, mirroring the suburban exodus of the 1960s and ’70s. And despite the practical, frugal values they tried to instill in their three children, Luci and Steve’s oldest son challenges their values by deciding to attend a “hoity-toity” art school whose tuition is far outside their resources.

The recent publication of The Unsettlers is timely; as the Paris Review writes, “especially in the shadow of an indefatigably evil administration,” the time is ripe for conversation about non-conformity and a redefinition of community based on value structures not shared by the powers that be.

A good companion read for The Unsettlers is Wendell Berry’s 1977 classic, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, or if you’d rather watch than read, check out the recent alternative lifestyle film Captain Fantastic (much of it filmed here in the Pacific Northwest).

Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for Whatcom County Library System where she selects adult nonfiction, eMaterials, and Hot Picks for county readers.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, February 8, 2017)