It’s comforting to curl up with a good back-to-the-land book and imagine ourselves living a charmed life outside of society’s strictures. That’s not this book. The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America is instead a realistic look at how three families worked—and worked incredibly hard—to create a better world, with varying degrees of success. Sundeen, a journalist and author of The Man Who Quit Money, examines the complex, painful and rewarding journeys of radical retreatants in Missouri, activist urban farmers in Detroit and no-nonsense homesteaders in Montana.
There are few easy answers in Sundeen’s telling of these diverse stories, which he neatly juxtaposes with his own reflections without stooping to the condescension that can creep into stories about the search for a better way. He visits the charismatic Ethan Hughes and his wife, Sarah Wilcox, at the Possibility Alliance in Missouri and is taken with their consensus-driven, computer-free lifestyle, yet admits to personally being seduced by convenience store rotisserie chicken and flashy sports car rentals. He shows us Detroit natives Olivia Hubert and Greg Willerer, growing vegetables in a downtrodden city where giving apples to the homeless only gives people fresh ammunition to lob at one another in the streets. And he brings us to the backyard skating rink of Montana’s Luci Brieger and Steve Elliot, who must run a tight ship to keep their 40-acre farm going, but don’t mind having a new truck in the driveway.
Sundeen deepens his analysis by including economic data, historical perspective and literary references. Readers will hear not only from the expected writers like Wendell Berry but also from economist E. F. Schumacher and activist Malcolm X. Context is everything in this carefully and affectionately reported account of idealists working not to leave the real world behind, but to make it better.