The Free People’s Village, by Sim Kern, is fun, sad, and uncomfortable in equal measure. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and at times it comes off as preachy, but I could not pry my eyes away from it.
Al Gore has won the 2000 election and declared war on Climate Change. Initiatives introduced include several carbon credits schemes, and funding for green infrastructure to solidify the Democratic Party’s hold on the federal government for decades, ushering in a bright green future for a select group of people. When Maddie Ryan, an English teacher, learns that her queer punk band’s beloved home, The Lab, is set to be demolished to make way for a new hyperlane, she decides to get involved. So she joins “Save The Eighth,” and learns that the hyperlane threatens to destroy more than just her favorite hangout spot. Saving the Eighth becomes more work than she could have imagined as she has to reconcile her own history with that of the black neighborhood she works and plays in, but does not live in. And before she knows it, a revolution is underway as she becomes intimately entangled in the lives of people she barely knows.
The Free People’s Village is a hard book to pin down. It is very clear that the book is sending a message to its readers, wrapped in a very clear narrative. Every single moment in the book feels like it could be a lesson in how to relate to other people, whether it’s on a personal or political level. Maddie is put in many situations where she has to struggle with people making her feel uncomfortable based on her conventional white-girl upbringing. She has to learn how to navigate conversations where she doesn’t have the experience or the knowledge to know what is right. She is surrounded by people who have various levels of education and insight, along with vastly different life experiences. While it feels contrived, Kern sells it through Maddie’s vulnerability and the sheer charisma and equal vulnerability of the people she engages with.
There are a lot of moving parts in the Save the Eighth movement, operated by people with different ideals and long-term goals. The vast array of groups varying in size and leadership tactics assault Maddie and her ability to understand what is right and wrong. Kern spends a lot of time trying to emulate the confusion of being a part of a larger whole when various parties don’t agree. It’s a confusing sloppy mess filled with moments of inspiration and singular drive, spaced out by repetitive tasks, education, discipline, and argumentation. Kern, through Maddie, puts the reader in the position of having to navigate the kaleidoscopic array of interests while knowing that the main goal—Save the Eighth—is right and good. Kern also places Maddie in the background. She’s not a leader; she can’t be. She doesn’t have the experience, the know-how, or the ground connections. And through her, the reader can see the various ways movements can and need to be supported by other means.
One of the things I grapple with when it comes to characterization is how willing I am to accept narrative roles when they are so clear. The Free People’s Village is filled with so many vibrant characters who are there to serve a purpose. They highlight fears, anxieties, as well as triumphs of individuality. Had Kern made the characterization more one note, I think it would have felt more like a morality play. Instead, they feature characters who are filled with contradictions, allowing them to act like human beings who find themselves in a situation they did not choose. Some rise to the occasion, others love the antics, and some are better suited to running logistics and supporting the frontlines. Kern shows a wonderful array of people devoted to a movement that ebbs and flows with passion and interest.
Is this a book that I would recommend to anyone? Absolutely not. But if you are interested in climate, gentrification, anti-capitalism, intersectionality within movements, and similarly related topics, The Free People’s Village is for you. It’s an earnest portrayal of getting swept up in something when you don’t feel like it’s quite your fight. Kern provides authors and books within the story for further education, while trying to find ways those books can relate to a normal person. Plus it’s just refreshing to see a climate politics book that is skeptical about what could have been had we handed the tools over to capital, and then flesh out how it would have affected the everyday landscape of our lives. The Free People’s Village filled a gap in my reading that only makes me want to double down on finding more stories like it. Skeptical and realistic while placing its heart firmly on its cover.
Rating: The Free People’s Village – Don’t just recycle that pamphlet, spread it around.
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.