In this rousing examination of contemporary American male identity, acclaimed author and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert explores the fascinating true story of Eustace Conway. In 1977, at the age of 17, Conway left his family's comfortable suburban home to move to the Appalachian Mountains. For more than two decades he has lived there, making fire with sticks, wearing skins from animals he trapped, and trying to convince Americans to give up their materialistic lifestyles and return with him back to nature. To Gilbert, Conway's mythical character challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be a modern man in America; he is a symbol of much we feel about how our men should be, but rarely are.
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I haven't read anything else by Elizabeth Gilbert, but she made a great first impression here. I live in Boone, North Carolina, and my land sits just above Eustace Conway's place. Though I'd heard about him, I'd never met him. I bought this book because he drove up on his motorcycle the other day and struck up a conversation with me. He's intriguing, really present, curious, and unassuming. The last was the only thing that remained surprising after reading the book, and it was only a half hour conversation, so I wouldn't profess to know him.
He wanted to see my chickens, I offered him a fig tree in the spring, and we talked about asparagus. We also talked about solar heating, a green house I built, and he offered to show me how to do some blacksmithing, which I'll gladly take him up on. The whole encounter made me really think about modern interactions, or our lack thereof. Nobody's ever just walked up to my house, introduced themselves, and started a pleasant conversation with me. A sane person, who wasn't selling something. It's never happened to me before, and it got me thinking about how isolated we've become.
I'd never thought about it, but when I was younger, I recall talking with strangers more. In a waiting room, a line, on a subway or plane . . . . Now, I'm generally listening to a book or something in my own personal bubble. I like that time, don't get me wrong, but it's a major shift in how we interact with others I hadn't really noticed. Private in public space--kind of shutting other people out. I don't even welcome most interactions with strangers anymore, as I have better ways to pass the time on my phone. But I wonder if I'm getting lazy. Missing out on experiences like this one.
I had no idea about the fascinating things he's done in his life, only that he's a well-known guy in the area, and that he owns and runs the Turtle Island Preserve. Obviously, the book was even more interesting having just met him, and knowing the places and many of the people discussed in the book, but I think I would have found it just as interesting had this not been the case.
He's had some extraordinary adventures and his many accomplishments are something beyond impressive, but what I really liked most about this book was the treatment of his faults and issues, and his painful relationship with his dad. Gilbert clearly knows him and his family personally, and her insights into the complexities of his family relationships, and their impact on who he's become, seemed really sapient without over-reaching or descending into psycho-babble.
In this book, he emerges as a very complex, smart man, who is likely a *!#@! to be around due to his instintingly high standards for himself and others. He doesn't suffer fools well, and he's smart enough that he's likely surrounded by people less intelligent than he is, even where they are plenty smart. I think that's hard for really smart people sometimes, and some don't handle it very well. Given the dad he was dealt, it wasn't really surprising to me that he can be less than a joy to work around in a situation where he has something he wants to accomplish.
It's an inspiring and sad story, all at once. Gilbert does a good job of painting a picture in which he's isolated by people's fascination with his persona and lifestyle, as well as by his own shortcomings. I was awed by his accomplishments myself, and couldn't help but wonder how our interaction might have changed had I known all of this beforehand. I'd like to think it would have been the same, but I doubt it.
The narration is great--very engaging and natural--and the story is well-worth the credit. If you like books like "A Walk in the Woods" or biographies of fascinating people, generally, you'll probably binge on this.
I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but maybe some general direction and purpose would have been a good start. While the story of this guy was initially interesting, the book didn't really go anywhere. The author drifts in a few directions, but in the end, I don't really like the person she's writing about. He's self-centered, not willing to learn about the social environment around him, and he's pretty sure everyone else is messed up. And hey, I'm not going to disagree that our society couldn't use some more strong spirited, independent, bold men, but not like this arrogant douche. No thanks.
There's so many better books out there about great men. Maybe pick up something like The Big Burn or something with Teddy Roosevelt. Those are characters worthy of respect.