Thursday, March 24, 2011

Review: Possum Living, by Dolly Freed

As some of you are aware my partner, Nathan, has a preoccupation with the apocalypse. He loves planning our future homestead, which will be self-sufficient, off the grid and include enough resources to survive anything from a zombie attack to a nuclear explosion. He likes camping because it's a chance to practice his survival skills, and most of his marathon training is completed with the idea that a person who can run 26.2 miles has a better chance of making it through most end of the world scenarios.

Part of his preparation is collecting and reading books on different survival-related subjects. Homesteading, food growing, nuclear survival handbooks - you know, the usual. When I was at the American Library Association's annual conference two years ago, I picked up a postcard for Possum Living and gave it to him, because it seemed right up his alley. He bought the book, read it and then handed it to me. And because I liked the tagline - "How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money" - I read it, too.

Possum Living was published in 1978, written by Dolly Freed when she was 17 years old. It is part memoir, part instructional manual, part inspiration and wholly narrated in Dolly's easy going and self-assured voice. Basically, she and her father live in a house they purchased with cash (no mortgage!), eat food they raise and grow themselves (bunnies and chickens in the basement and yard, fishing whenever they want, and a substantial garden on their property), purchase all their clothes second hand, brew their own alcohol, get around on bikes or borrowed horses and sometimes bend the rules to get what they need without actually spending any money.

Dolly tells the reader that she and her father live on $700 a year. I'm not sure what that equals today but I know it's much less than what I live on and I consider myself to be fairly thrifty. While much of the information Dolly provides is now dated and I found myself skimming the chapter on law and most of the non-vegetarian recipes, I will say that Possum Living is both inspiration and highly motivating. The best sentence of the whole book is the following, and if you only read it for this reason than that would be reason enough:
"It's easier to learn to do without some of the things money can buy than to earn the money to buy them."
I love this, and ever since reading Possum Living it's become a sort of mantra.  Now, I'm not a lazy person. I'm very ambitious and motivated - when it comes to things I'm passionate about. Writing, reading, running, yoga, feminism, activism, animals, community. When it comes to my actual 9-5 desk job? Not so much. I would love to quit my job and focus full time on the things that really excite me, and I'm working towards that reality. I know that when it happens I'll be making a lot less money than I'm currently earning. Which is a scary thought - no one wants to feel like they're going backwards! This is part of the reason I'm drawn to minimalism, anti-consumerism and living simply - I'm training myself to not only live with less, but to thrive because of it. Just as Nathan prepares for the end of the world, I am preparing for the end of this way of living and the beginning of something better. Freedom.

While I probably won't make the recipes that Dolly provides or live exactly the life she advocates, I will strive to approach living with the gusto and courage that fills her book. If you're looking for a quick and easy read that will get you fired up, then Possum Living is it!


  1. Adding this to my reading list!

  2. I love, love your new blog design--gorgeous!

  3. It's a quick read and not exactly "literary," but definitely worthwhile.

  4. After reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I was convinced that I need to stock up on A) Blankets, B) Guns, and C) Canned foods.

  5. Chrissy, I love this. While I'm getting my MLS and am very excited to work professionally in a library, I know ultimately I'll only want to work part-time. A garden, sewing, "homesteading"--all of those things I'd much rather spend my energy on. I'm glad to know I'm not alone!

  6. I'm with Rebecca: I would love to work part-time or even three-quarters time if it were an option. And maybe it will be, some day. But I think to do that happily, one needs to embrace a lifestyle that works with a reduced income. For now, I work full-time and try to squeeze the rest of my life around work, which is really tough some days. I say that and I don't even have kids or a pet!

    The book sounds like a curious read. I'd love to hear what people had to say about minimalism in 1978--it seems like a fun look back on a movement that's gaining momentum today.

  7. I do like the idea of living simply. Camping and being outdoors has been a major part of my life since I've been in Boy Scouts since i was six years old. However, I love my job and feel like I contribute to a greater cause. And I do like the feeling of accomplishment that I get from my job in the Navy. The pay isn't bad either, so I'll keep on "makin' that paper" until I get to a point where it's not necessary anymore. :)

  8. Thanks for the post. I should definitely check out that book. I do believe that people can indeed live this way, yet fear is a powerful tool. In fact, I have met several people who have (and do!) and these are people with young children. The world has changed, but I would hate to think that we all must conform to the 9-5 lifestyle. I have taken the route of art and have yet to traverse the 9-5 road. Obviously, if you quit your job and therefore, make substantially less money, your lifestyle changes dramatically. It would be much harder to live growing your own garden and sustaining on little money, and probably not flying anywhere anytime soon! I am the type of person that thinks that kind of living is fine but there are a lot of people (especially Americans) that [think they] couldn't live without their girl trip to so and so or their pedicure outings, or hair appointments, shopping excursions, etc... and all these luxuries don't really exist for the majority of people on the planet, so why is it so hard for many to contemplate living without them? There's so much me, me, me I hear from my age group. It's their career, or their home, car, school.
    I ran into a group traveling through Florida a few months back. They were a pretty diverse group. They had a travel trailer, and the couple were probably in their late 30's. She talked with me on a sandy white beach in great depth about her life changing ordeal and what made her sell her house and quit her well-paying job and buy a small camper and stop doing what it was she had been doing for all of her adult life.
    She said something that will probably always resonate with me: "I realized that it's not working for a living that I ever wanted, I am working for a lifestyle."
    She was fine making next to no money if it meant she was the one deciding where she was going and what she was doing.
    I asked her where she planned on heading next, and she replied "i am not sure, but i want to be warm." How joyous it is to be able to look at the world as something that is wide open and full of immediate possibilities!
    We only have this one life (as far i know anyway) and we should do what makes us happy.
    One path is, after all, but one of a million paths...

  9. From the comments on this post, it seems like a lot of people are in our camp! Maybe I need to do a series on this... ;)

  10. I think I could get by on a reduced income... if it wasn't for my student loan debt. Or maybe that's just an excuse I'm using to stay in the rat race, which is comfortable and familiar, even if it's not exactly making me happy. Something to think about...

    And you've hit the nail on the head with that last line, in regards to this book. It is definitely a curious read!

  11. I think being passionate about what you do is key. It's not so much the 9-5 thing I have a problem with, but spending the majority of my time in a career where I don't feel I'm making a difference or using my skills. I'm still trying to figure out how I can make the biggest difference while being happy and fulfilled. I think going back to school is definitely the first step! (For me, of course.)

  12. Acelyn! Thank you so much for your thoughtful and wonderful comment. I do think I would be happy living on much less. To be honest, most of my extra money goes to debt and savings, so I'm used to being "poor" and comfortable living that life. I do have some extravagances (beer, sushi, visiting my family) but I am trying to find ways to make those things less expensive (brewing my own, only on special occasions, and moving closer to New York). I've only just begun to test the waters of minimalism and redefining the way I live my life, and it's scary and exhilarating at the same time.

    "I'm not working for a living. I'm working for a lifestyle." I love that. Really, truly. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  13. You know she now lives in Houston, right? It shouldn't surprise you that she's kind of a recluse. Here is a follow-up interview with her, written just a few years ago, where she talks about the book and her life afterwards.

    And more on Possum Living from MetaFilter:

  14. This looks good. I'll check it out.