Melding memoir with wide-ranging research into American experiments in communal living like the Shakers and The Farm (an intentional community founded by hippies in the late 1960s), Shirk seeks historical and contemporary ways of living that are more sustainable, bountiful, creative, and supportive than the siloed, workhorse model favored under capitalism. Without idealizing these communal experiments, Shirk takes their complexities and contradictions as part of the necessary reality of imagining other ways of living ... At times, an almost stream-of-consciousness narrative voice overwhelms the book’s many insights, but it also communicates the urgency and earnestness of her quest.
Shirk writes deftly and in depth. She is well-attuned to her topic’s threads of historical and spiritual complexity as well as her own feelings about relationships, sexuality, and community. Some readers may find that her interweaving of personal tensions with contemporary and historical narratives, and social definitions of heaven, occasionally leads to a disjointed narrative, but it’s a story worth contemplating ... vigorous, personalized argument for the continued relevance of an old idea.
... the book becomes, unintentionally, a window into rural gentrification: the migration of affluent urbanites and suburbanites to the country. That she doesn’t see her move in these terms, at a time when second-home buyers have spurred a 'freak-out housing market' in upstate New York, only highlights just how under-recognized rural gentrification is ... On some level, Shirk seems aware that migrating upstate might count as gentrification, but she takes pains not to fully acknowledge this fact ... Ultimately, it’s this blind spot—Shirk’s inability to see locals—that most troubles me. When Shirk conducts fieldwork, visiting The Farm in Tennessee or Black Mountain College in North Carolina, she talks to people and learns about these communities. In Delaware County, locals rarely warrant attention ... These blind spots matter because they stifle an important conversation before it can start ... Writers like Shirk who take part in amenity migration should acknowledge these class divisions. Which isn’t to say acknowledgment is an end point: If Shirk had slotted in 'rural gentrification' alongside 'imperialism' in her litany at the top of the hill, this would have been something, but not much. To paraphrase Katy Waldman’s critique of self-awareness in contemporary fiction, awareness doesn’t equal atonement. But awareness is a first step. Only once we’re aware of rural gentrification can we talk about its effects and consider how to bridge the two worlds in the Catskills and areas like it.