Nov 19, 2008

The Last American Man

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


chartroose said...

Yes, I dreamt of being a hermit, especially when I was tired of school and the stupid social games kids have to play.

I'm debating whether or not to add this to my TBR. Perhaps...

Dana said...

I am not an outdoors gal but this sounds like an interesting book

steph said...

I dreamt of being like that.
I love the outdoors, it's hard to really get that close though when I live in the suburbs :P
Honestly though, this guy sounds fascinating.
I think it's my dream to live a sustainable life close to that and I want a farm and to be able to grow my own food and just live close to nature.
Definitely going on my TBR list
thanks for the review

Bybee said...

I enjoyed this book but hated how Elizabeth Gilbert kept putting herself in so much. Also, she comes across like she's just bursting to tell the reader whether she slept with Eustace or not. Don't know how she restrained herself on that one. Eustace is a fascinating character. I admired him but I felt sorry for all of his girlfriends.

Jeane said...

Yes, I forgot to mention that aspect. The author's presence in the book did get annoying at times.