In Joshua Safran's Memoir, Jack Kerouac Meets Edgar Allan Poe

'Free Spirit' Tells of a Troubled Childhood On and Off the Road

The character of memoirist Joshua Safran’s mother seems to have jumped out of a Jack Kerouac novel.
Getty Images
The character of memoirist Joshua Safran’s mother seems to have jumped out of a Jack Kerouac novel.

By Raphael Magarik

Published November 19, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid
By Joshua Safran
Hyperion, 288 pages, $24.99

Among the American contributions to world literature, perhaps least appreciated is the genre of automotive horror. To be sure, we are acknowledged to have invented the road trip, which was prophesied by Huck Finn and Lewis and Clark (whose rivers yearn to be highways) and shifted into full gear in the work of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Miles of paper have been spent analyzing our carefree, gas-guzzling quests and their values: freedom, wilderness, the ecstatic individual who sings America. We tend to pass over the ghosts that haunt this national romance, even though our nightmares are littered with murderous cars (Stephen King novels alone account for several), crazed motel managers, and buses which explode if they go below 50 miles per hour. Exactly what do these vehicular demons say about American freedom?

“Free Spirit,” Joshua Safran’s memoir of a nomadic childhood in the 1970s and 80s, raises this question with particular force in its depiction of a countercultural road trip that alternates between being pastoral and horrible; charming and harrowing. The book opens in Skagit County, Wash., with 10-year-old Josh in a car driven by Leopoldo, a “former Central American guerilla fighter,” who, ascending a mountain in the dark, is trying “to break land speed records in our rundown Chevy.” Leopoldo has been drinking and as he drives he curses both the CIA and Claudia, his romantic partner and Josh’s mother. The opening pages hint at the violence and abuse that are the subject of the book’s second half, but the episode ends after Claudia and Josh abandon Leopoldo and the Chevy, in a moment of oddly reverential quiet, with “the two of us wandering the silent forest beyond the perimeter of human civilization.”

As Josh notes, he and his mother frequently found themselves resting in peaceful wilds between abrupt, violent journeys. In Josh’s first decade, we follow them as they tour the Pacific Northwest. Claudia is an anti-Vietnam activist, mural painter, frequenter of witch covens; Josh’s biological father, a surfer and musician with whom Josh later spends one surprisingly dull summer in New York, barely enters the narrative otherwise. Claudia and Josh flee San Francisco because of the collapse of the revolutionary Left, fears of a nuclear winter, and rising rents. Josh’s mother, who seems unable to hold a job or finish a degree, is reminiscent of one of those people Kerouac extolled in “On The Road,” who are “desirous of everything at the same time” and who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” She organizes a parade against nuclear weapons, flits between communes and between lovers, disdains schools, and raises Josh on Howard Zinn, Marge Piercy and Narnia.

Because her movements trace what remains of the ’60s counterculture, Josh’s travels with his mother catalogue that period’s dregs. For one freeloading and manipulative boyfriend, a critique of private property has atrophied into venial theft. Likewise, a marijuana-themed Rainbow Gathering dissolves into a muddy orgy after a hard rain washes away the tents. Josh wittily skewers his mother’s pretensions, sometimes a little too wittily; when a memoir’s narrator turns out to always have been right, a reader tends to feel suspicious. Still, though Josh is drawn to elementary school and normal, civilized life, he finds it stale and authoritarian. Constantly neglected and rarely cared for, he cannot quite condemn his childhood. His repeated re-enchantment, whether with a short-lived pet goat or a black drumming circle at the Rainbow Gathering, makes “Free Spirit” an enthusiastic, bounding picaresque.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.