cover image Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia

Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia

Adrian Shirk. Counterpoint, $26 (352p) ISBN 978-1-64009-330-0

Essayist Shirk (And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy) mixes autobiography and history in this enlightening study of utopian communities in America. Loosely defining utopias as “something that, according to the laws of capital and conquest, was never supposed to be able to exist, but somehow did,” Shirk documents her own efforts to reclaim her creative energy and build a communal life with friends and other writers and artists, and visits the sites of vanished utopian societies, including the furniture-building Shakers in Mount Lebanon, N.Y., as well as contemporary communes such as the Bruderhof in the Catskills, where members build and sell wooden toys. She notes that, despite differing belief systems, modern utopias often network with one another, offering labor and experience in order to help ensure their long-term survival. She also poses intriguing questions about the possibility of achieving true gender and racial equality within communes, which skew overwhelmingly white and often return women to traditional domestic roles, and reflects on how an intense period of caretaking for her ailing father-in-law placed a strain on her marriage and her finances and highlighted the inadequacies of “normal” society. Enriched by Shirk’s trenchant observations and open-minded curiosity, this is a winning survey of the desire to make the world a better place. (Feb.)