Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die
Amy Fusselman (Twitter)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (January 13, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0544303008 / 9780544303003)
Nonfiction: social science/memoir, 144 pages
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (January 16, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
As a visitor from New York City with her husband and two young sons, Amy Fusselman is startled, a little frightened, and deeply intrigued by Tokyo’s Hanegi playpark. “Play freely at your own risk” says the sign at the entrance to “Savage Park.” Open fires burn and families toast marshmallows while children climb on ropes in the trees and undertake construction projects with scraps of building materials and available tools. While Hanegi playpark is in some ways reminiscent of the vacant lots where earlier generations of American children played with whatever was at hand, the setting–and the message–are unlike anything Fusselman has ever encountered. Savage Park is a document of Fusselnan’s fascination with this strange playground, which draws her back to Toyko a year later to to spend a week working alongside its lead “play worker,” and what it comes to signify to her.
Fussleman’s musings on cultural differences in the perceptions of “play” and “risk” lead to observations about how we engage with the space around us…and how we don’t. The brief history of “adventure playgrounds” like Hanegi offered in Savage Park reveals that they are far more common in Europe and Japan than in America, and Fusselman suggests that the carefully constructed, padded structures in our play areas function at least as much in the interest of parents’ psychological safety as for the physical safety of our children.
Illustrated with numerous black-and-white photographs of the place that inspired it, Savage Park blends Fusselman’s thoughtful reflections with her passionate arguments for Americans to reevaluate our concepts of fear, space, and creativity, much as her time in Tokyo’s “Savage Park” caused her to reevaluate her own. It’s worth noting that Fussleman’s perspective is a privileged one; those who actually live daily under risky conditions may be unlikely to want them in the artificial construct of a play space, and perhaps that’s why playgrounds like Hanegi are relatively rare in American cities. That said, her exploration of the ideas that Hanegi represents–and particularly, how they impact children and parents–is compelling, and makes Savage Park good companion reading to Eula Biss’ On Immunity.
On a visit to Tokyo with her family, Amy Fusselman stumbles on Hanegi playpark, where children are sawing wood, hammering nails, stringing hammocks to trees, building open fires. When she returns to New York, her conceptions of space, risk, and fear are completely changed. Fusselman invites us along on her tightrope-walking expeditions with Philippe Petit and late night adventures with the Tokyo park-workers, showing that when we deprive ourselves, and our children, of the experience of taking risks in space, we make them less safe, not more so.
Savage Park is a fresh, poetic reconsideration of behaviors in our culture that — in the guise of protecting us — make us numb and encourage us to sleepwalk through our lives. We babyproof our homes; plug our ears to our devices while walking through the city. What would happen if we exposed ourselves, if — like the children at Hanegi park — we put ourselves in situations that require true vigilance? Readers of Rebecca Solnit and Cheryl Strayed will delight in the revelations inSavage Park.
“Early one spring morning several years ago, I received an e-mail from my USSR-born, New York City–bred theater-director friend Yelena inviting me and my family (which then consisted of my husband, Frank, and our two sons, King and Mick, ages five and two) to visit her and her family (which then consisted of her husband, R, and their two sons, Chuck and Gen, ages four and one) at their new home in Tokyo, with the understanding that if we chose to come, we would stay for at least a month.
“I do not believe the English language contains a word that expresses all that this gesture was. Her invitation to us was a feat. She inhabited her space with such generosity that she enlarged it. And then, from that expanse, she called to us: Come in.
“She summoned us without much consideration, it seemed, for the space between us. The distance between New York City and Tokyo, after all, is basically the length of the world. It was as if she didn’t view the journey we would have to take to get to her as daunting, formidable, or even, really, interesting.
“The distance was just space, for her. And she did not see space as an enemy.”