Afton: A Novel, Ellen LaConte’s debut full-length fiction work, has already garnered praise from authors and critics. Miles Frieden, recently retired Executive Director of the prestigious Key West Literary Seminar, wrote of Afton that “it is perhaps the best new novel I’ve read in twenty years, and I’ve read hundreds of them.” Reader reviews on Afton‘s Amazon page are 5-starred reviews and the Kirkus Review culminated in these encouraging lines:
“LaConte writes with a naturalist’s eye. Her passages about a preening heron, a band of hungry orioles, and a fish struggling for oxygen are an intoxicating blend of scientific observation and poetry. Effortless images cascade seductively over one another, drawing in the reader. A stylish first novel about a newly independent woman on both an ecological mission and one of self-discovery.”
For her part, LaConte reports that Afton, two decades in the making, is her “favorite of all the things, fiction and non-fiction, long and short, that I’ve written in forty years. I have such affection for the characters, identify with some characteristic in each. Yes, even the more loathsome of them. Every time I put the manuscript away to work on something that seemed more important, I ended up coming back to it just to spend more time with them. And I know it represents, to use a writer’s terms, my most felicitous writing.”
Life Rules, LaConte’s previous book — also five starred on Amazon — was reviewed by theologian-economist John B. Cobb, Jr., best-selling author of For the Common Good, as the “one book you must read if you want to fully understand the crises that threaten our very existence.” In a similar vein, the influential human ecologist William R. Catton, author of Overshoot and Bottleneck, wrote of the book that “If there were someone with authority to require all candidates for high public office to read certain books in preparation for the responsibilities they aspire to undertake, Ellen LaConte’s Life Rules should be high on the list of urgently required reading.” By LaConte’s own reckoning it is her most significant work to date. Lloyd Wells, an influential community organizer and author of Recreating Democracy: Bringing New Life to American Communities, writes that “it may be one of the most significant books published in 2010.” High praise for the work of an author who is virtually unknown.
LaConte worked primarily as an “old-school, print content provider,” freelancing articles, essays and stories for magazines including The Sun, East/West Journal, New Perspectives, Odyssey, Country Journal, Countryside, Convergence and Gaia: A Literary & Environmental Journal, and working as a stringer for organic gardening magazines, trade journals, newspapers, and advertising publications. “I’ve written scores of pieces that served my own or the publishers’ immediate purposes with which I was generally pleased, but mostly for small venues with niche audiences,” she explains, “which is why you’ve never heard of me. I gravitate to big ideas, what they call these days ‘meta-syntheses,’ but I like living a small-scale, quiet life. I’m a ‘gregarious recluse,’ like Annie Dillard.”
Life Rules is inarguably a meta-synthesis. It takes big, difficult ideas like what’s threatening human survival and what actions and behaviors could reduce the threat, and frames them in simple terms and analogies. The book is the distillation of thirty years of independent scholarship, correspondence with visionaries in diverse environmentally-related fields, extensive research in ecology, economics, evolution, complex systems and sustainability theory, democracy, history, consciousness evolution, organic gardening and farming—and life experience.
LaConte and her ex-husband homesteaded in the ‘70s and ‘80s—“it was our version of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral,” she says. She and her ex-husband, University of Connecticut education and futures professor, Ron LaConte, retrofitted an old Victorian on ten acres in Connecticut and then built an energy efficient house and five out-buildings on 125 acres in mid-coast Maine. While sharing the challenges of building, heating and cooking with wood, raising most of the family’s food including sheep, pigs and chickens, composting intensively, and milking neighbors’ cows, she also co-edited and published with Ron two nationally subscribed futures-oriented newsletters, ForeFacts and Teaching Tomorrow Today, and subsequently served as Assistant and Special Sections editor for Farmstead magazine, a gardening, small-farming and rural living monthly published in Freedom, Maine (not far from Hope and Unity!). Farmstead rode the crest of the back-to-the-land and simple living movements to reach 150,000 subscribers. LaConte later worked Advertising Director, Special Projects Editor and assistant to the publisher of The Republican Journal in Belfast, Maine, was principle of a small public relations business, and an internal communications consultant and newsletter editor for several small corporations and non-profit institutions.
In 1980, for a greenhouse-focused issue of Farmstead, LaConte interviewed Helen and Scott Nearing, beloved, infamous homesteaders, social critics, international lecturers, authors of the best-selling Living the Good Life series of books, and columnists for The Mother Earth News. The Nearings had recently finished building a sun-heated greenhouse, the last of five stone structures they built when Helen was in her 70s and Scott in his 90s on four acres out of the more than 100 acres they had bought looking west to the Camden Hills over the Penobscot Bay in the early 1950s.
After Scott died in 1983, peacefully and at home just days after his 100th birthday, Ellen became one of Helen’s confidants, her land trust and publisher liaison, president of the Nearings educational Social Science Institute and, ultimately, Executor of Helen’s estate when she died in a car accident in 1995. In 1996, fulfilling Helen’s Will, she turned Forest Farm over to the Trust for Public Land. In 1996 the TPL established at the farm an on-going, now free-standing educational and publishing non-profit institute, The Good Life Center. (http://goodlife.org)
LaConte wrote On Light Alone and Free Radical, successful myth-bending memoirs about the Nearings, the first of which was translated into Korean and went through three printings there. From 1997 to 2000, with her partner, Dolly Hatfield, Ellen LaConte published the nationally subscribed newsletter Starting Point, which is being revived monthly online at this website in October 2010.
LaConte’s next book, After Afton: Hannah’s Story, is set in her beloved Maine with a planned publication date of fall 2017 (Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise). She has lived since 2001 on a half-acre city lot she has converted to a “critter-friendly” haven with National Wildlife Federation wildlife habitat certification in the Yadkin River watershed in the Piedmont bioregion of North Carolina.