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‘Trying Home: The Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound’

by Justin Wadland

Oregon State University Press, 192 pp., $19.95

Tucked away down in South Puget Sound, the remote Key Peninsula seemed like the perfect place for a bunch of 19th-century utopians to put down roots and establish an anarchist colony without being pestered by outsiders. But even best-laid plans can go awry, and it turned out that the cozily named community of Home not only attracted suspicion from outside but also sparked enmity within during its quarter-century history.

A new book called “Trying Home,” by University of Washington-Tacoma librarian Justin Wadland, retraces the ups and downs of the colony, which drew freethinkers from around the country to participate in this living experiment.

The author first became acquainted with the colony via its newspapers, which he had been tasked with cataloging when he was a UW graduate student. From the New Era to the Discontent, from the Demonstrator to the Agitator, Home almost always had a press that was independent and vociferous.

As publisher Jay Fox declared, “The agitator is the mostly roundly abused and at the same time most necessary individual in society.”

Many of the people in Home were willing to walk the talk, and for a time the colony even attracted visits from leading radicals such as Emma Goldman.

But the book points out that there were weaknesses in the community’s makeup, too. A place with no leaders and no laws is ripe for anyone to make distinctions of some kind.

There were the vegetarians and the meat-eaters.

There were those who practiced “variety” (free love) and those who preferred monogamy — made more difficult when a couple was composed of two proponents of differing philosophies.

There were the Nudes — some community members embraced the healthful effects of bathing out in the bay while wearing only the “mere perpetual garb donated by nature” — and the Prudes, who suffered from shock at the sight.

The ongoing bickering led to litigation and a series of trials that titillated the region but did little to advance the utopian ideal upon which Home was founded. Within a quarter century, the community had disintegrated.

But there was still the living legacy of Home — the children who grew up there. Although raised by freethinking parents, some did what kids of every generation are wont to do — they rebelled against their parents.

In particular, Wadland relates the case of Donald Vose, who turned against the community that raised him and became an informant for the Burns Detective Agency. Using connections he had made among anarchists, including Goldman, who had been a longtime friend of his mother’s, he tracked down and testified against a couple of anti-corporate activists accused of a major bombing in Los Angeles. From that point on, Vose was a persona non grata back in Home.

Perhaps the community’s unconventional nature prompted Wadland to adopt an equally unconventional narrative approach for “Trying Home.” In each chapter, he pairs the stories of noteworthy incidents or individuals with a follow-up essay on a broader theme, such as shelter, or education, or work. On top of that he offers additional reflections on his own young family — layering multiple concepts of family and of home.

But in the end, “Trying Home” tries too hard to be a work of literary nonfiction. A more straightforward chronicle might have served this interesting subject matter better.