Dolly Freed, "Possum Living"

Dolly Freed, "Possum Living"

I first heard about the book Possum Living through an interesting journalism experience.  Author David Gates, intrigued by his tattered copy of the book, tracked down its original author.  He found her, and the follow-up on her story is truly fascinating.  Unable to get his story published as a magazine article, Gates released it to the internet on a donation program.  

And now here it is, in book form!  This copy is the original Possum Living book, sandwiched between Gates' introduction and an afterward by the original author.  (Dolly Freed is not her real name, but it will do in a pinch.)

I found the forward and afterward sections to be the most interesting.  They tell the story of what Dolly's young life was like in a far more accurate way than the book does itself.  Although it purports to be about frugal/impoverished living, Freed's 18 year-old self insisted on taking a high-minded approach which is alternately presumptuous, annoying, defensive, and dictatorial.  (Not unlike many 18 year-olds, honestly.)

Unfortunately, the main text is disappointing on almost every level.  As a memoir of "how we lived our difficult life," it offers nothing in the way of introspection.  As a how-to manual (its stated purpose) it offers a collection of advice which is frequently bad, wrong, and impossible to follow.  The elaborate section on distilling your own moonshine alone could probably kill you in at least six different ways.

I only have direct experience with one section of Freed's advice, on raising chickens and rabbits.  And it raised more questions for me than it answered.  I also strongly recommend against Freed's advice.

According to Freed, she and her father raised both rabbits and chickens in the basement of their house.  This was, she says, a cheap and efficient way of protecting them from predators.  But… what?

Freed glosses over this point quickly, but it's one I kept revisiting.  Keeping a collection of squawking, pooping, eating animals in your basement would surely be awful enough that the benefits would have to seriously outweigh the inconvenience.  Between the smell, the flies, the noise, and having to haul all that feed and poop in and out of your house, I really just can't imagine it.

Furthermore, it sounds like the animals lead a fairly pitiful existence.  Freed mentions that, uncertain whether direct sunlight was important to the growth of baby animals, she and her father moved the pens of nursing mother rabbits closer to the small casement window.

Free-range chickens essentially feed themselves, as well as taking care of dispersing their own poop.  Furthermore, chickens lay eggs based on hours of light, so if you wanted to keep laying hens in your basement, you would have to put lights on a timer.  Surely the cost of the electricity would outweigh the savings of raising your own eggs.

This single chapter was so puzzling to me that it cast a pall over the entire rest of the book.  If the advice on chickens is so bad, so careless, who's to say if there's anything of value in here?  Unfortunately, despite its amazing history, this is one book I can't recommend.