I love books on homesteading. It's a bit of an obsession. My two most recent reads provided a stark contrast. One was absolutely stellar--the best homesteading book I've read thus far. The other was a bit of ridiculous lunacy, peppered with so many blatant falsehoods and creepy hypocrisy that it made me wonder about the author's mental health status. I'll start with the skin-crawling douchebaggery and end in singing praises. Better to end on a high note, yes?
Arctic Homestead is technically written by Norma Cobb (the homesteader) and Charles Sasser (co-writer). From what I can gather, Cobb didn't actually write the book (although she claims to have done so on her blog). Sasser used her journals and interviews with Cobb to write the novel. Cobb has a blog where she does some complaining about things she would have done differently had her publishers allowed her. However, she doesn't ever say "This book makes me out to be a cripplingly insecure, paranoid, mind-bogglingly hypocritical, misogynist moron who has a distinctly difficult time telling the truth." Because, well, it does. Were I Norma Cobb, there is no way in hell I would have allowed my name to be attached to this book, which leads me to believe that she either a) desperately needed the money or b) is really as awful as she is portrayed in the book. Unfortunately, after a bit of poking around on the 'net, I suspect it is the latter.
If you're looking for a "how-to" on homesteading, Arctic Homestead ain't it. It's written as more of an adventure tale, highlighting how the Cobb clan came to Alaska and managed to build a homestead near the Arctic circle. Norma Cobb is technically the last woman to have staked a claim via the Homestead Act, although her claim was backdated due to her husband's poor choice of land initially, so we never know who the real "last woman pioneer" might genuinely be.
Her husband's poor choices are a theme throughout the book, although Cobb and Sasser do quite an interesting mix of passive-aggressive insulting and hero worshiping of Lester Cobb, Norma's husband. The authors never state the obvious--Lester was a child (21 years-old) when he came to the bush and his decisions reflect that of a grossly immature, ill-informed adult infant with an extra helping of bravado. It's amazing the dude didn't kill his family or himself. (What the book doesn't mention: They eventually divorced, Lester is now deceased and Norma lives in AZ.)
The adventure tale goes a bit like this: Lots of near-death misses with guns and snow and bears, heaps of struggle (Cobb rails against "sissies" in the lower 48 taking handouts and being victims, fully ignoring the hypocrisy of her constant sense of victimization by others. Apparently, Alaska is filled with brutish douchebags who will take advantage of you at every turn), mostly due to poor planning and bad choices. Of course, she never attributes it to their idiocy. It's always someone else's fault or the harshness of the conditions. There's quite a bit of environmental harm thrown in, but Cobb doesn't actually acknowledge the harm they cause, though she rails against others who commit the exact same acts. Seriously, people. The irony is overwhelming.
There are several tales of bears nearly killing folks, always shot down so close that their claws hit her husband's boots as the creature falls. Once, sure. But over and over again. Really? It reads like it was written in hopes that someone would option it for a film.
Cobb is alarmingly insecure. She (or Sasser) refers to most other women she encounters as unattractive and is disparaging of anyone who has more education than her high school educated self. Her digs at other women are...well, creepy and absolutely unnecessary. Her parenting is a little disturbing as well, despite the fact that she sings her own praises. She passive-aggressively insults her husband's children frequently (the Cobbs were a blended family. Her husband with two daughters and she with three sons). She finds no qualm with complaining about mothers who work away from home yet ignores the fact that when she was away from the family working, her husband couldn't "baby-sit" (um, it's called parenting) and left the children with friends. Just one of many instances of hypocrisy-r-us.
After reading one too many near-death misses and yet another tale of some jackass screwing them over, I decided to do a bit of poking around on the 'net. One story particularly disturbed me. She tells of a hired hand who wintered over when the Cobbs had to leave the homestead. She barely mentions him, yet tells a horrid, yet brief, tale in which he is incapable of handling the dark, long winter and goes mad. In his delirium, all of the Cobb's sledding dogs die from neglect. It's an awful story. The problem? It's a lie. The real story? Lester Cobb made one of his daughters bring him the dogs one by one and he shot them. Dunno why that happened, but apparently Norma felt the need to tell the tale of the dogs' deaths without tarnishing the hero worship/passive-aggressive insults around her husband. Most disturbingly, she uses the young man's real name (asking for a lawsuit?) and neglects to tell us that she asked him to take her two daughters for an extended period of time, because they were annoying her and, after all, they were really her husband's children.
Essentially, Norma Cobb presents herself (or is presented by Sasser) as a stereotype, which might explain why she only presents others in the story as stereotypes. She's Christian (lots of God talk), but absolutely intolerant of those who are different. Rural roots, uneducated and utterly unintelligent (dammit, people, plenty of rural, uneducated folks are BRILLIANT), petty and catty towards other women, a lying hypocrite (why, why, why must my religious brethren always fall into that stereotype?), on and on.
Ok. Let me try to shift gears. Dudes, seriously? I hated that book. I could spend five hours complaining about it. Oh, I guess I already have. Sorry. Ok. Calm. Breathe. Move on.
Ohhhhhh, that's better. Up Tunket Road by Philip Ackerman-Leist is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. If you're looking for a simple "how-to" this one is not for you. However, if you're interested in balanced discussions of the *why* of homesteading and a humble, honest look at all the angles, me thinks you'll like this book.
I read a few other reviews where people complained that the book is too dry and that Ackerman-Leist runs off on too many tangents. I couldn't disagree more. The author weaves his journey beautifully into something that actually makes sense--the compromises, the whys, etc.--all with impressive humility. The hypocrisy and lack of honesty that so many other books on homesteading seem to be seeped in are lacking from this tome.
I particularly enjoyed the way in which he relates his homesteading journey to time he spent in the Swiss Alps, learning the "old ways" of farming. Like everywhere else on the planet, those ways have come under assault and are being lost, although there is work to preserve this knowledge through a museum. He handles the discussion of this painful transition and the people it affects with absolute grace.
Although his family's homestead is off-grid, he offers discussion as to why certain concessions were made (e.g., bringing in the internet vs. not allowing other "modern" intrusions). He also gratefully acknowledges the abundance of help he received in building his family's dream. That is one aspect of other homesteading books that has always bothered me. It takes a village, y'all. Acknowledge the damn village.
Get this children--Ackerman-Leist is an academic (runs the Farm and Food Project at Green Mountain College), but his book is not poorly written or boring! PRAISE THE SWEET BABY JESUS! It is possible for an academic to write without boring the shit out of us with the usual posturing! Up Tunket Road is intelligent, well-written, accessible and provides balanced analysis of why homesteading is still relevant without being preachy. I absolutely loved this book.
Another fabulous part of the book? Ackerman-Leist's wife is an artist and her beautiful illustrations are peppered throughout the book. Pictures, y'all! We adults just don't get enough pictures in our books.
What are your favorite homesteading books? Have you read either of these mentioned here? What did you think?