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Book review: "Safekeeping"

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Vermont author, Karen Hesse, earned the Newbery Medal and a MacArthur Fellowship. Her new book for Young Adults is set in Vermont and explores a world gone wrong. Betsy Kepes has this review of Safekeeping.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

In the beginning of Safekeeping, the president has been assassinated and the United States is in lock down, with vigilantes, looters and police raids. Seventeen-year-old Radley returns to the Northeast after months of volunteering in Haiti. When she gets off the plane, eager for a reunion with her parents, they aren’t there. She has no cash, no functioning cell phone and a credit card that doesn’t work. She decides to walk from the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire to her family’s home in Brattleboro, Vermont.

This hungry, exhausting hike is only the prelude to the long walk Radley must make north to Canada after she discovers that her parents have abandoned their home. Radley becomes part of an exodus heading north, walkers who hide at night from the thugs who beat them for being out after curfew.

Karen Hesse began work on Safekeeping before the mid-term elections in 2010 when politics in the United States had reached, as she writes, “such a dizzying level of intolerance.”  She takes the liberal paradise of Vermont and turns it into a place where citizens have to avert their eyes from other travelers and steal food from dumpsters to survive.

Before reaching Canada, Radley nurses another walker back to health, a silent young woman with a wise and protective dog. The trio find an abandoned schoolhouse in Quebec and settle in to make it home. Still afraid of being caught, they trust no one and Radley searches every day for enough food to keep them alive. Hesse describes the rich world of summer and lets the girls relax a bit, assisted by a mysterious benefactor they call “Our Lady of the Barn.” But fall is coming and the cold.  

With her camera, Hesse walked the same route that her character Radley walks, the long miles along Route 5 between New Hampshire and Vermont. Here’s Hesse, “I love to walk. But walking alone, along a busy highway, in towns and in the long stretches between towns with only my own thoughts, discomforts, and paranoia to keep me company had a profound impact on the emotional line of the book.”

Black and white photos from that walk share the pages of Safekeeping with the text and add depth of the story. On a page of text where Radley is searching for food, Hesse placed a photo of a bakery, with plates of cookies in front of a coffee machine, the rich taste of the pastry completely out of reach for Radley. Other photos show lace curtains in old doorways and the Connecticut River in the spring.

When I contacted Hesse about her new book, I asked if she’d like to do a radio interview. She declined, but suggested we have a written correspondence. She answered my questions with long and thoughtful answers. I asked if young readers would find her vision of the future too bleak. She wrote, “Some readers are not ready to live in an uncomfortable fictional world. But there are other readers, the majority of readers, I believe, who hunger for books that speak the truth to them, even in works of fiction.”

In her novel Safekeeping, Hesse speaks the truth, in a stripped down prose in Radley’s voice. As in many books for Young Adults, the book doesn’t solve all the characters’ problems, but it ends with a sense of hope. When Radley tells a Canadian friend she doesn’t know how to mourn the dead, the woman answers, “The way you live your life now, that is how you make amends to those you have lost, that is how you honor them.”

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