Unless you’re among the four or five of our readers who get the reference to The Good Life, the book by Helen and Scott Nearing, you don’t know that they were 1930s radicals who left the big city in 1932 to seek harmony with nature. This book attempts to tell the stories of contemporary “pioneers” looking to create a better existence by turning away from the excesses of late-stage capitalism.
Locals will be most interested in a roughly 100-page section that constitutes the center of the book. It concerns two intertwined stories: One of Detroit-raised Olivia Hubert, the other of West Bloomfield-raised Greg Willerer. We’ve written about Willerer before, given his notoriety as one of the folks selected by Time magazine as the “Committee to Save Detroit” (oh, gee whiz, Time magazine) and his work in community-supported agriculture in North Corktown, as covered by Tracie McMillan in her book The American Way of Eating.
To date, we hadn’t chronicled Hubert’s fascinating story. She married Willerer in 2012 and is a partner in his Brother Nature Produce, but before that studied horticulture at Eastern Michigan University and in the UK at the Royal Horticultural Society’s crown jewel, its garden at Wisley.
Then, of course, there is the setting, which is all over this section as a character without dialogue, earning its star billing as the section title: “Detroit.”
Sundeen seems like exactly the wrong sort of person to write about Detroit. His pedigree is that of the sun-kissed California rich kid, a fellowship-winning, globetrotting, author with degrees from Stanford (Get Rich U) and USC (the University of Spoiled Children). He grew up in Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach. He divides his time between Utah, Montana, and Colorado. His degrees aren’t in the discipline of journalism but in the fields of English and creative writing. He has been published alongside many a member of the writing workshop-trust fund-industrial complex in such publications as McSweeney’s and The Believer.
Then again, who better to be fascinated by themes of hard work and voluntary poverty? His recent book, 2012’s The Man Who Quit Money, would seem to make it a theme for the fortysomething writer.
All that said, the chapters relating to Hubert and Willerer are actually pretty darn good. Despite a bit of excessively rhapsodic simile (the creative writing background can’t be stamped out entirely) and Sundeen’s determination to turn the book’s focus on himself from time to time if only to show how he’s reacting to everything, it’s an engaging read, like a really long, good feature story.
Particularly interesting is the way Sundeen compares and contrasts the white, suburban mythology of “what happened to Detroit” with the urban, black perspective of the city’s transformation. Willerer’s family saga is one of retreat, of flight to an unsustainable way of life he ultimately resists. Hubert’s family saga is folded into that of the Northern Migration, which changed the makeup of Northern industrial cities, none more than Detroit. Doled out in dribs and drabs, Sundeen's digest-size version of the story of “what happened to Detroit” is probably the best, fairest portrayal of the Motor City’s postwar metamorphosis published since Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography.
Another enjoyable detail is that Olivia’s perspective is one we see to little of and understand all too well. While the preponderance of coverage of Detroit features people from “well-functioning” cities expressing disbelief that it takes hours for police to respond to calls or that people can fall into potholes on major thoroughfares, what about things viewed the other way? After hearing, for the millionth time, that sad tale of woe of the suburban newbie being shocked that somebody stole their MacBook out of their unlocked car on Mack Avenue, it is a delight to read this passage concerning Olivia Hubert’s time at EMU:
She observed how her white classmates left their expensive laptops on sofas and dining hall tables. Amazingly, they didn’t get stolen, but some behavior she considered just plain dumb. A toothy girl from the north country had a habit of napping on her bed with her door wide open in the middle of the day, when dorm entrances were unlocked. Olivia pulled her aside. “Look, girlfriend. You can’t do this. It’s not safe.” But the next afternoon, there was her friend, slumbering in peace, her hair a golden pool of silk. Olivia reached around the door, locked it, and gently pulled it shut.