Monday, January 9, 2012


I read Freedom at a ranch a few miles away from Bandera, Texas: Cowboy Capital of the World. It was a book I had almost read several times before, often picking it up at the bookstore with the intent to purchase and then setting it down before the moment of truth at the cash register. Despite the delusions of grandeur that infiltrate when I set foot anywhere near a purveyor of books, I had known that I would not finish this one. It looked interesting, but not interesting enough. I would enjoy it for a few evenings before putting it down for something more salacious, more instantly gratifying. It would be relegated to the nightstand, where I would look at it with vague guilt and a delusional resolve that I would try again. Several weeks later during an apartment cleaning binge, I would put it on a bookshelf near other good intentions and mostly forget about it.

For Christmas, I received an e-reader. I justified it as a practical, convenient way to keep up with the immense readings assigned in graduate school. It is, however, simply another medium in which to gratify my obsession. Before I left for my weeklong retreat to the Texas countryside, I uploaded several books I'd finally have the time and inclination to read. For an entire week, the everyday obligations and excuses would be as nonexistent as cell phone reception. I couldn't imagine anything better.

I was both interested in and skeptical of Freedom. The novel follows the Berglunds, a seemingly perfect "Whole Foods generation" family living in Minnesota. A series of puzzling actions by members of the Berglund family cause neighborhood curiousity and consternation. Why has Walter, passionate conservationist, taken a job with a coal company? How come the Berglunds' son has moved in with the Republican neighbors? As Patty Berglund, Walter's wife, has a meltdown visible to everyone in the neighborhood, we begin to see the story unfold.

Author Jonathan Franzen grew up in a town neighboring my own hometown. Local reading enthusiasts speculated that the Berglunds' neighborhood was based on Webster, a St. Louis suburb and Franzen's hometown. I am initially cautious of this slice of society: upper middle class families that tout their trendy reusable shopping bags and decry the rapid disappearance of some small animal of which no one had previously heard. I actually staged my first protest at the age of ten, speaking out at Kirkwood City Hall against developers who wanted to cut down the trees behind my elementary school. I agree with a lot of the reusable bag/disappearing animal ideals. However, I feel I often encounter an onslaught of Smug when embarking on conversations of that nature. I do not believe that Smugness is universal within environmental mindfulness, only prevalent enough to warrant the aforementioned caution.

Regardless, I soon found myself wholly immersed in the Berglund family. Each character is so flawed, so funny, and undeniably human. I felt as though I came to know the Berglunds. I instantly recall my mental image of each of them as I write this. My concern that this book was a preachy environmentalist platform melted away as I became engrossed in the multifaceted, fascinating family. As the chapters follow different characters at different time periods, we begin to know the Berglunds as a whole: from their minute irritations to their grand context. As opposed to a moral lecture, Walter's environmental obsession becomes both his savior and his greatest flaw. Rather than a lesson, this is who he is.

The title of the book is relevant on a multitude of levels, examining the nature of freedom in the emotional, interpersonal, familial, and environmental realms. It took on another level for me, as I read it tucked within a large expanse of the Texas Hill Country, sharing my skyline with some of the last remaining cowboys.

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