Friday, November 2, 2012

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Sixteen year old Radley Parker-Hughes was in Haiti volunteering at an orphanage when America was plunged into chaos and marital law. The American People's Party came to power and the new president has been assassinated. Against the advice of Monsieur Bellamy who runs the Paradis des Enfants orphanage Radley decides to fly home to the United States. But when she arrives in Philadelphia, her plane to Manchester, New Hampshire is delayed. When Radley finally arrives in Manchester, her parents are not at the airport to meet her. Without a working cell phone, no food and little money and uncertain as to what to do, Radley manages to get a ride to the bus station only to discover that she needs authorized travel papers to cross state borders.

When she tries to contact her parents, she finds their phone number not working. Not having any other options, Radley decides to walk from Manchester, New Hampshire to her home in Brattleboro, Vermont. She finds food in dumpsters along the way, and sleeps out in the woods along the highway. Unfortunately when Radley arrives home, her parents are not there. Fearing that they have been arrested and imprisoned, especially when the police continue to come to the house, Radley decides to leave and head north towards Canada. Canada, it appears, is largely unaffected by what is happening south of its borders and offers both safety and stability. Radley hopes that her parents have also traveled to safety in Canada and that she will meet them there.

Radley packs her backpack, takes whatever money she can find and sets out north walking along Route 5 towards the Quebec-Vermont border. It is during this journey that Radley sights another young woman and her dog, walking north. One rainy day Radley finds herself led by the dog to an abandoned silo where this same girl has hidden herself. The girl whose name is Celia is very ill and Radley takes the last of her money to buy medicine to help her. Celia and Radley continue there journey, largely uneventful into the small town of Sutton, Quebec. Because both are in the country illegally, they decide to hide in an abandoned farmhouse. Celia is not well and eventually Radley learns what is wrong with her. Surviving in the house is a day to day struggle but the girls are helped by an elderly woman they dub Our Lady of the Barn. Will Radley ever be able to go home? And if she does will she find her parents? Will life ever be the same again?

Safekeeping has an interesting format in that the story, narrated by Radley, is illustrated with over ninety black and white photographs taken by author Karen Hesse. These photographs serve to enhance the first person narrative, helping to establish both mood and setting. The sepia cover photo sets the initial atmosphere of the novel with it's rainy, rural location and a lone girl.

Safekeeping is a realistic survival story that centers on the themes of friendship, trust, and identity. It's not a particularly exciting read and gets bogged down in the middle when the two girls reach Canada. We learn a bit more about Celia but what we learn is not especially surprising and there isn't a great deal of suspense or action in the novel. In fact there's really not much to hold the reader's interest at this point and many will probably put the book down. However, those who are interested in a novel driven more by character rather than plot will enjoy Safekeeping. Radley not only makes a physical journey from America to Canada, but she also experiences a personal journey from that of a dependent teen whose parents have always made mistakes right to one who is self-reliant, mature and concerned for others.

"My parents never scold me about the frequency with which I lose things. They always just fix it for me, no matter how I screw up. I'm used to them just fixing it for me."

Hesse provides little backstory as to how the situation developed in the United States nor who exactly the American People's Party is. Everything happens at a distance mainly because the characters are the focal point of the story.

Overall, this is probably a book that younger teens might enjoy, with an element of dystopia, some mild adventure and lots of interesting themes to explore.

Book Details:
Safekeeping by Karen Hesse
Harrisonburg, Virginia: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company 2012
294 pp.

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