by Elizabeth Gilbert
This is the story of Eustace Conway. A man who wanted to live entirely self-sufficiently, and be a part of nature. He grew up in a comfortable suburban home, but spent most of his time in the woods behind his house. He learned woods skills as a child from both parents and could accurately use a bow and arrow by the age of ten. At twelve he spent a week alone in the woods, just to prove he could do it and survive. At seventeen he moved out of his parents' house to live in a tipi he built himself in the mountains, catching his own game for food and making clothes out of their skins. In the years that followed, Conway (among other adventures) traveled the Mississippi in a wooden canoe, hiked the Appalachian trail, kayaked across Alaska and crossed America coast to coast on horseback. But what he really wanted to do was own a piece of land, where he could work out his ideas and methods of living close to nature in his own way. Eventually he managed to do so, and set up a ranch called Turtle Island where he not only lived his dream but tried to spread his vision to others, running summer camps which immersed children in nature.
The Last American Man is a fascinating book. Not only for its many passages describing how Conway did everything by hand- weaving baskets, starting fires without matches, stitching his own clothes, etc. but also showing how frustrating it was for Conway when he couldn't entirely escape modern society. He continually had conflicts with other people, particularly over his land ownership. His summer camps were a bit controversial- in return for their nature lessons, the children had to work on Conway's own projects, which included hard physical labor. He was always trying to think up schemes to fund his projects and promote his ideals, and comes across as a rather arrogant perfectionist. He had a very difficult relationship with his father, which shadowed his entire life.
I cannot say that I found Conway to be a likeable person, but reading about his efforts to live entirely detached from modern conveniences is very interesting. Did any of you daydream as a kid of going off and living in the woods by your own skills? I know I did at one time. Conway's experience breaks the illusion of nature survival being at all idyllic or easy- but it's intriguing to read how very seriously he tried.
Rating: 4/5 ........ 271 pages, 2002