Book Review: Free Spirit

Free SpiritJoshua Safran’s Free Spirit: Growing up on the Road and off the Grid is a haunting, beautifully written memoir about his appalling childhood. Although the subject matter is grim, the book is never-the-less poignant and often wryly funny.

Joshua’s early memories take place in the l970s San Francisco. His mother Claudia, steeped in hippie/revolutionary activism, searches for what she believes to be utopia. She leaves San Francisco in search of the perfect “intentional community,” a promised land free of nuclear war.

Joshua and his mother embark on a series of wild on-the-road adventures. There is no doubt Claudia loves her son, but many of her actions show a gross lack of common sense. In one instance, mother and son travel for days–mostly hitchhiking–to a Rainbow Gathering. She doesn’t think to bring a tent, or even food. Joshua is left on his own for days while his mother takes up with a just-met lover. Rain-soaked and miserable, the six-year-old pilfers a blanket and, on his own, finds food and shelter. Drugs and alcohol are plentiful; real food scarce.

Through the years Claudia travels with different men, but Joshua, even as a young child, can see no idealistic future with any of them. Claudia is unbelievably naive, always making excuses for her current lover’s failings. Through all their travels, she teaches her son a love of books and he learns to read at an early age.

They try a variety of living situations–communes, make-shift homes, a teepee, buses, a trailer, an abandoned ice-cream truck, and on Camano Island, Washington, a lean-to built on a stump. In the meantime Claudia has married an abusive Salvadorian guerrilla. Joshua struggles with his step-father’s alcohol-fueled abuse to both his mother and to him, or alternatively listens to their noisy love-making in their tiny water-logged shack. Joshua is eager to go to school, but he has huge obstacles to overcome to even get ready. They have no running water, no electricity, not even a decent outhouse. Joshua doesn’t own a comb, toothbrush, or a mirror. His clothes are patched and dirty. Kids bully him and tease him about his unkempt appearance. Still, he loves school, loves to learn and especially loves being warm. Eventually they move to Stanwood, just across the bridge from Camano Island, and he takes solace in the Stanwood library, relishing in the many books, being able to use the bathroom to wash himself with warm running water, and as a refuge from his abusive step-father.

Free Spirit is, in the end, a story of triumph. The language is rough and the situations harrowing, but it is an honest, stark but eloquently-told coming-of-age story. At the end of the book the author sums up his adult life. What he has accomplished is impressive.

To learn more about the author, visit


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