OK, TLT Book Clubbers (and other interested readers) – grab your glass of wine (or cup of coffee, depending on the hour), pull up a comfy chair and let’s talk about the first of our two summer reads, Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life.
I’ll start off by mentioning that earlier this year I wrote a feature article for a glossy woman’s magazine about the sacrifice I made by abandoning my beloved New York City for my husband’s home town of Houston. Although that move was difficult for me, having now read about the dramatic, whole-life upheaval Kristin Kimball underwent after meeting her husband Mark, I have to admit that leaving the nation’s largest city to go to its fourth largest doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. 🙂
To recap the book: Kimball, a freelance travel writer, meets Mark after driving six hours from her New York City studio apartment to interview him for an article on organic farming. They soon become romantically involved and Mark convinces Kimball to start a farm with him in upstate New York, one which he hopes will produce all the food that families participating in their CSA would need in a year: milk, meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, cheese and more. Mark is a highly principled (and at times maddening) person who tries as much as possible to avoid the never-ending cycle of consumption and waste that is modern American life. He’s never owned a car, television or radio, he loathes plastic, he wants to use horses instead of tractors on the farm, and, at the time Kimball meets him, he’s keeping a big ball of his own used dental floss in case it might be useful someday. (!) Kimball’s relationship with Mark is a “fiery” one, and the book documents the tumultuous year between their first meeting and their eventual marriage, while also chronicling Kimball’s transformation from East Village denizen to rural, organic farmer.
Kimball is a solidly good writer and I was gripped (and sometimes repelled) by her vivid descriptions of the everyday realities of farming life. (I won’t soon forget, for example, her graphic recounting of the birth of a calf.) Sure, I might buy my produce from a farmers’ market and even cultivate a relationship with the people behind the table, but that’s a far cry from really understanding the commitment and back-breaking labor that goes into producing the food we eat. Short of actually living and working on a farm, reading The Dirty Life is next best method to open the eyes of the complacent, clueless urbanite.
Kimball is also a candid memoirist and she doesn’t flinch in her self-examination. Here, for example, she berates herself for having been an intellectual snob in her prior life:
I had come to the farm with the unarticulated belief that concrete things were for dumb people and abstract things were for smart people. I thought the physical world – the trades – was the place you ended up if you weren’t bright or ambitious enough to handle a white collar job. Did I really think that a person with a genius for fixing engines, or for building, or for husbanding cows, was less brilliant than a person who writes ad copy or interprets the law? Apparently I did . . . .
The book has laugh-out-loud moments, like the disastrous first meeting between Kimball’s and Mark’s parents, or her lame attempt to build a pig-run under the amused eyes of a more experienced farmer. But The Dirty Life can also be quite touching, even heart-breaking, and there are passages that are downright lyrical, especially in the book’s lovely epilogue. Ultimately, it was Kimball’s musings about human relationships, as much as about farm life, that stayed with me after I’d finished the book. Here, for example, is Kimball on the eve of her wedding:
I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go through with it. What if everything that my mother was saying with her facial expressions was right? What was I signing up for? Poverty, unmitigated hard work, and a man whom, for all his good points, no reasonable person would describe as easy to be with. There was something else, too, and I don’t know why nobody talks about it. Marriage asks you to let go a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat good-bye.
But maybe precisely because of that woman’s magazine article I’d written (which was about how couples cope when one partner gives up something important for the other), I often found myself wanting to hear more about Mark’s view of Kimball’s choice to leave the city. Kimball explains the decision by telling us that she discovered a surprising love for farming’s physical labor and that the farm — and Mark — gave her the sense of “home” for which she’d been longing. But even if the farm eventually became a shared vision, it has to be acknowledged that Mark was living out his lifelong dream while Kimball was initially just going along for the ride. She had the most to lose by agreeing to the plan and, given how uncompromising Mark can be (and his vocal disdain for so much of what characterized Kimball’s New York life), I sometimes wondered if he sufficiently honored and appreciated her choice to follow him.
But putting aside my role as armchair marriage counselor, you can tell I enjoyed The Dirty Life quite a lot. And now I get to hear what you thought about it. Let’s start talking about the book in the comments below. . . .
[And don’t forget: a week from today (August 31st) we’ll talk about Tomatoland, complete with a Q&A with Barry Estabrook, the book’s author!]
Join over 1,000 Lunch Tray fans and never miss another Lunch Tray post! Just “Like” TLT’s Facebook page or “Follow” on Twitter and you’ll also get bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, discussion with other readers AND you’ll be showing TLT some love. ♥♥♥ So what are you waiting for?