This is my third review of a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, and I was pretty excited to find this copy in a local Goodwill! At the time, I didn’t know about all the books she had written, so I thought it would be company for my two copies of Eat Pray Love (Yes, two- because I flagged and highlighted the crap out of one, and that’s not as pretty in photos.) In The Last American Man, Gilbert weaves together the story all about the man, the myth, the legend that is Eustace Conway.
Since childhood, Eustace was attracted to the allure of living off the land, providing for himself, and for educating those about the nature around him. He took to maintaining ecosystems in his back yard, or disappearing for hours on end into the woods behind his home. If he wasn’t outdoors, he was quizzing the employees at the Scheile Musuem, about natural science and history, or reading to gain knowledge about such matters as how to build your own tools, Native American folklore, and botany.
Eustace was more at home in nature than his family’s house. Struggling as the eldest son to a very traditional 1960’s couple, Eustace was often the target of his father’s high expectations and demands. When unmet, he would fly into bouts of rage, cursing his son’s idiocy and laziness- and Eustace’s mother thought it kinder to not intervene, knowing that any suggestion to prevent the rage would only lead to more violent outbursts. With the relationship with his parents in tatters, Eustace set off to the wild on his own at age seventeen, after graduation, knowing that he would be able to survive without them. The freedom elated him.
He lived in a handcrafted teepee, and got himself a job educating those about nature and wildlife conservancy, and lived off the land, eating what he could hunt and gather. Often, that meant eating roadkill (as long as it was relatively fresh) and dumpster diving. Eustace stayed in the teaching position for only a short while, as he found that there was so much more to experience besides working inside a box. Eustace and a buddy made the impromptu decision to hike the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, with little more than the clothes on their backs, a pot to cook things in, a knife, and their sleeping arrangements, which for Eustace meant his rolled up teepee. As the young men hiked at a rapid pace, they would hunt and gather when they could, eating whatever they could to keep up with their calorie requirements so they wouldn’t starve. It was a brutal start, but Eustace was in heaven on the trail. As he neared it’s completion, journaling the whole way, he noted that he finally felt like a man.
From there, Gilbert continues her rapid-paced notations on Eustace’s life, from his constant travel spreading the word about nature conservation and wildlife survival techniques, to the women that were determined to keep with this wild man. In between Eustace’s story, Gilbert also calls to question on what it means to be a man, and how social convention has changed the definition. Drawing parallels from Thoreau and American western icons, she explores how nature has influenced man’s rights of passage throughout history. It’s a fascinating read, and equally balanced with humorous storytelling and deep insight. Nature fans, Gilbert fans, and those looking for a quick and intriguing read will enjoy The Last American Man.