October 2007

Andrea Chmielewski


A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg

A Field Guide to the North American Family is a beautiful book. Beautiful because of the gentle way the story of two suburban families unravels for the reader. Beautiful because each of the short entries that make up the novella is accompanied by a photograph, sometimes bizarre or haunting, but always a pleasure to behold. Beautiful because the book itself has all the elements that make the act of reading seem like an event: thick pages, beautiful typefaces, and a ribbon bookmarker.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s novella follows two seemingly normal families, the Harrisons and the Hungates, as they navigate through the all-too-familiar waters of family drama: divorce, death, adultery, growing up, falling in love and having a broken heart. What saves the book from being just another in a slew of similar books is its “field guide” format, with entries (and accompanying photos and captions, of course) that log the very things that seem to make other family dramas so mundane. With entries like “Secret,” “Mortgage,” and “Custody Battle,” most readers will probably not be able to resist the urge to skip around, reading whichever entry, or looking at whichever photograph, catches the eye first. This is encouraged, of course. Rather than reading the entries from A to Z as listed, the reader is encouraged by the author to skip around, even providing cross-references to aid in the wandering.

Each entry is different, sometimes jumping in point of view or tone when you least expect it. The entry for “Entertainment,” for example, begins playfully with, “In the beginning was the Television. And the Television was large and paneled in plastic made to look like wood.” The entry then traces the disintegration of a family through the evolution of the presence of TV in their home. Under “Habits, Good,” there is a short, blacked out paragraph, like a partially-suppressed government document, and, underneath it, this short sentence: “There is no such thing as a good habit.” While occasionally the voice of one or another of the characters seems a bit forced (such as the young female narrator in the entry “Intimacy”), the entries, for the most part, are dead-on, giving us just the glimpse we need to understand one more element of the story that Hallberg unfolds so beautifully before his readers.

The biggest letdown about A Field Guide to the North American Family, if it can even be called a letdown, is that the joy in reading the book comes mostly from discovery. Once read, the book, while still being a beautiful object, has lost its narrative mystery. And with the book structured to facilitate multiple readings, with its choose-your-own-adventure-style nonlinear narrative, it is almost heartbreaking to come to the end and realize that, no matter how much you want it, a second reading of this book will never be as magical as the first, no matter what order you read the entries in or how much you try to forget the events that take place between the Hungates and the Harrisons. But the actual story makes up only part of the book, and even after the story is through you may still find yourself picking this book up to enjoy the pages printed to look like blue lined notebook paper or a coffee-ringed office document. After I closed this book, I felt the need to pass it on to someone else, to allow someone the same experience of patching together the field entries to create the simple, but eloquent, whole that is A Field Guide to the North American Family.

A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg
Mark Batty Publisher
ISBN: 0977985091
144 pages