Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fusselman
Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fusselman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pages
Since the mid-1980s, most American playgrounds have featured blocky equipment designed to look like fortresses, with foam padding all around to cosset children and protect them from injury. In Japan, at Tokyo’s Hanegi Playpark, children and adults hammer, carve, and build things; climb trees and swing from ropes; and even use open fires. Amy Fusselman spent a month in Tokyo with family and friends some years ago. After visiting the park, which she and one of her young sons nicknamed “Savage Park,” the author found her view of space — the environment in which we live and how we interpret what it’s for — so radically altered that it drove her to write a memoir about it. The story, told in a nonlinear fashion, covers the initial trip to Japan and a return visit to learn more about Savage Park, weaving in interactions with friends, family, and different kinds of artists; the 2011 Japanese tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear accident; and a few treatises on motherhood. We meet Fusselman’s husband, Frank, and children, King and Mick; her friend Yelena, their host in Tokyo; and Noriko, a Savage Park employee who plays Irish music on a tin whistle.
The ideas that underlie Fusselman’s subtitle — “A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die” — are ripe for exploration and the expression of personal opinion. What does it mean to play without direction or overt protection? Why have American parents become so averse to letting their kids skin their knees, bang their elbows, or experience the heretofore usual hardships of happy childhoods? What’s happened to the idea of letting children’s creativity guide their arts and crafts, instead of circumscribing it with computers and tablets? What has changed since the days when American kids played with pocket knives? What exactly are we so scared of?
In this slim book that is part prose poem, part essay, part meditation, and part mommy blog, Fusselman asks all of these questions and more, most of which are very much a part of the zeitgeist in media stories about contemporary parenting. Unfortunately, Fusselman spends more time pondering the idea that there are questions than she does attempting to answer them. What at first seems as if it will be a high-minded philosophical exploration quickly begins to feel like self-indulgence. Utilizing a meta-structure that parallels the concepts of space she discusses in her book, in prose stuffed to bursting with repetition and parallelism, Fusselman writes from her own experience of the world. But in the free-flowing, purposefully disjointed narrative, she moves over and over again from first into second and third person — sometimes simultaneously — sweeping readers into a literary royal “we” that feels oddly narrow-minded even as it professes to invite readers in.
“That we should conflate eating with experiencing space makes sense, however, considering that one of a human’s first and most enduring experiences of being here is likely being fed at the breast of his or her mother,” she writes. “In your first days, you are fed by, warmed by, sheltered by, and comforted by a who, a who that is actually, in these earliest moments, less of a who and more of a where. If you’re going to be brave enough — and it generally does take some courage — to acknowledge the existence of, and experience your relationship with, space, it is logical that you would want to do that in a place that you designate to be the space equivalent of a mom, a place where you will be warm, secure, and fed.”
While this riff is sweet and idealistic, it’s also a bit convoluted and hokey. The phrasing presumes that mothers, by and large, always love their children, and that such love is so strong their children feel it and understand it as the ultimate protective force — forever. Some people might see a lot of truth in that. Others will no doubt experience it as a fundamentally flawed proposition (a reality much darker than anything investigated in this book). There is no space for that here, despite the fact that fear and death are more than implied in the title. Fusselman’s inquiry into any kind of fear can often seem superficial.
Fusselman is at her best when writing in the first person and opining about creativity. Computerbased arts programs for children really bother her, and when she discusses them, her prose has sudden energy the rest of the book lacks. Much of Savage
Park is overgeneralized and sentimental, lacking any acknowledgment that ideas about space might be tied to socioeconomics. This feels either tone-deaf to the current state of class warfare in the United States or purposefully twee, as if the book is a game she’s playing with words instead of an honest attempt to connect with a world of readers.