possom Living book coverThere’s a bittersweet poignancy to reading “Possum Living.” On the surface, the book, which was first published in 1978, has a plucky, can-do attitude that adds a festive panache to the idea of serious simple living. Subtitled “How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money,” “Possum Living” is like a manual for the bon vivant homesteader, written by a happy-go-lucky 18-year-old who goes by the pen name Dolly Freed.

The mood of the book is unabashedly cheery: Quit the rat race, free yourself from consumer culture, enjoy lots of free time, and live off the land — all while drinking homemade moonshine! “Possum Living” outlines one way to quit the rat race — complete with fresh local recipes, money-saving DIY tips, and a lot of commonsense know-how.

Read between the lines though, and “Possum Living” tells a more worrying story — of a girl raised in poverty by a father who seems to like to drink so much that he's unable or unwilling to hold down any job except the most impermanent of gigs — who was so lonely that he let Dolly quit school at the age of 14 to play badminton, help with the chores around the house, and drink moonshine with him. 

Dolly puts a cheery, matter-of-fact spin to the story, but the reason she ended up homesteading with her father in a small property outside Pennsylvania is because her mother left with her brother. Why? Her parents fought all the time about — you guessed it — money. And while Dolly makes bunny-raising, carp fishing, moonshine-distilling, and dilapidated home rehabbing sound like a lot of fun, a reader can’t help but wonder if all this “not working” on Dolly’s part got to be a real grind after a while.

Homesteading and country living are often idealized, but reading “Possum Living,” I wondered if I could handle the serious amount of repetitive manual labor involved in living “simply.” Of course, perhaps it’s that different people experience different tasks as “work” or “play.” There many be those who look forward to chicken defeathering and degutting as a natural part of Sunday dinner. Others might enjoy learning how to do the task once but cringe at the thought of digging out poultry innards with their hands on a weekly basis, while others are vegan specifically because the thought of poultry innards makes them puke. If you’re in that latter category, “Possum Living” isn’t for you because Dolly’s homesteading experience includes lots of eating of meat — including fresh roadkill!

Whatever your diet and however you feel about homesteading, “Possum Living” will make you think long and hard about “work,” “play” and time well spent. “We tell people who have the Protestant Work Ethic and might resent us that we have to go fishing whether we want to or not, for food,” Dolly writes. “But the truth is, we always do want to.” The real question is, would you want to?

That said, many tips in “Possum Living” don’t require you to wrestle with existential questions — or even change your lifestyle drastically.  You many not be ready to move to a dilapidated fixer-upper in the middle of nowhere, start hunting for your meat, and raise rabbits in your basement. But maybe you’ll enjoy shopping at thrift stores, bicycling more for travel, and preserving extra veggies from your backyard garden — ideas readily embraced by many an urban environmentalist today.

The 2009 edition of “Possum Living” comes with an afterword from Dolly, now more than 30 years older and wiser. Not too long after “Possum Living” was published, Dolly quit possum living and went to school — and became an aerospace engineer for NASA, later changing careers to work as an environmental educator. A mother of two in Texas today, Dolly says she has since rethought some of her advice — like the sly suggestion to perhaps consider slashing neighbors’ tires to avoid the cost of hiring a lawyer to settle a dispute. She also reveals that because of his worsening alcoholism, she cut off all contact with the father she spoke of so lovingly in “Possum Living,” not speaking to him for 14 years until his death by crashing a car into a tree while intoxicated.

Though I picked up “Possum Living” because of my interest in simple living, the book was more helpful in helping me appreciate my life as is — and appreciating life in general for all its strange complexities, even for the would-be anti-consumerist homesteader. Curious about Dolly Freed’s life today? Read the feature — complete with recent photos — at Paige Williams. “Possum Living” is available in bookstores now for $12.95.

MNN homepage photo: mawear/iStockphoto