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Jeanne Nolan is not a writer. From the Ground Up (Spiegel & Grau, $26), her first book, uses memoir neither to explore her own consciousness nor to reaffirm her stylistic daring. Nolan begins with her 2004 return to her well-to-do family’s home in Winnetka, Illinois, as an unwed mother escaping a sinister agricultural commune in North Carolina. After seventeen years with the commune, she is frightened and ashamed; her departure results from her constant battles with the commune’s director over the raising of her child:

They’d controlled us by convincing us that the outside world was toxic — deathly so — and that we, personally, were deeply tainted and in need of purification that only they and the farm could provide.

At home, she soon realizes that the commune gave her an incidental education in farming, and she begins putting her expertise to work around Chicago. It is evident from Nolan’s prose that the people on the commune did much to destroy what was once a confident young woman (toward the end of the memoir she modestly contends that if “I could perform a task and fully understand it, anybody could”). But Nolan’s vision is more profound than she thinks. The joy of From the Ground Up is not Nolan’s own happy ending but rather the illuminating way she applies her vision to practical problems. Ten days after planting a large public garden, she returns to find it overgrown with nut grass. She feels overwhelmed by the weeding: “Vegetables and fruits produce seeds at the very end of their life cycles,” she explains, “but weeds often produce a huge number of seeds when they’re young, and so they multiply even if they don’t live very long.” Nolan quickly realizes that nut grass is easy to pull up — and so she enlists visitors. The nut-grass “insurrection,” as she calls it, becomes an opportunity to teach visiting children about weeds, and the shared project builds enthusiasm in the community for the garden.

The hardest memoir to write is the one that is honest but not self-obsessed; Nolan accomplishes this with clarity and poise.

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