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Book Review: Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Before we get into this review, let me give you this disclaimer: The Mr. was an art major in college and the godfather of my children is a photographer.  We are a family steeped in art and it is entirely possible that this will be reflected in my review.  Read more to find out why.

Background: When we first meet Radley, she is trying desperately to get back to the US from Haiti and it is clear that her path will not be easy.  In this very unique look at a dystopian future, a party known as the American People’s Party has assassinated the president and declared Martial Law.  Radley returns home only to learn she has no home to return to, and she is not safe.

Radley then begins a slow trek on foot to try and cross the Canadian border. Along the way she makes a wary alliance with a girl named Celia and her dog Jerry Lee.  Together the two learn how to survive in a hostile world with the occasional help from strangers, but not all strangers have good intentions.

Safekeeping is the ultimate melancholy road trip novel which is highlighted by stark black and white photos throughout.  These photos are often haunting; and sometimes they are simply what we imagine Radley is seeing as she walks down the street and narrates the tale.  If you read the text on the page and look for a direct correlation, you will not always find it.  Instead, what you see is what we imagine Radley is seeing as she looks around her and takes this journey.  For example, on page 133 there are these white sheet looking ghosts in a field on the page as they talk about leaving their homes.  On the one hand, the ghost looking sheet things could certainly represent the idea of being haunted by thoughts of home, but you can also see yourself passing this field as you and Radley have the conversation that is happening.  So on one page you may see graffiti that says “Change the Future” and on another, you may simply see a cow.  These are not literal illustrations of the text but the pictures that you see on a journey.  Sometimes they are one or the other and sometimes they are both.  (Want another example? On page 255 there is a closeup of an eye and a discussion about feeling like you are being watched).

As a story alone, Safekeeping would not stand out in today’s overabundance of dystopian tales – although this is not truly a dystopian tale; in many ways it is a contemporary story of what if, and it is haunting because that what if seems all too plausible.  But this is not a story alone but an example of mixing visual art with story – think Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs – and because it is something more, we have to evaluate it as something more and I think it succeeds.  It doesn’t have the same visceral punch as Ransom Riggs (in part because that is a terrifying, action packed tale), but Hesse is a quieter, much more melancholy storyteller, which you know if you have read Out of the Dust (which I love).

Safekeeping also has a uniqueness in that it tells a political dystopian tale that has a feeling of more currency; living in today’s political climate you can really see how something like this could happen and the story seems more current and plausible. We’re probably never going to make children fight to the death in a televised death match, but we can all imagine someone coming to power and taking away their foes in the middle of the night.  In fact, in many ways there is a very distinct World War II feel and connection to this book.  There is a part where Rad and Celia are hiding in a barn and it definitely makes you think of Anne Frank hiding in the walls of a house.

In the end, Safekeeping is a story about what it means to be desperate, homeless and looking for a place to be safe in an unsafe world, and about the tenuous friendships you make in the midst of uncertainty.  It is also a heartbreaking look at all those moments that we should have done and all those things we should have said when we realize the world we lived in, and took for granted, has changed.  And thoughtful readers will examine their hearts and walk away from this book changed.

“I try to see the quiet beauty of Vermont… to reclaim it as my birthright. But I know now that there is no such thing as a birthright. Anything can be taken from you.”

I liked the combination of the art and text and thought many of the pictures were both nuanced and well done.  I would have liked to see a few different things here or there, I felt a couple were overexposed, poorly lit or poorly framed, but teens are not going to be thinking that (also, I was reading an ARC so I don’t know if that will affect the quality of the photographs).  I don’t know that teens will be lining up to read this book, but I think it has tremendous artistic value and is a good book to put into the hands of teens looking at alternative forms of story telling and even reluctant readers.  And I see a lot of ways that book can be used in both English and Art classrooms.  3 out of 5 stores and recommended for public and school libraries.  I thought it had the quiet, haunting, melancholy storytelling that Hesse brings to craft. (ISBN 9781250011343)