Safekeeping by Karen Hesse, with her photographs. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
The Plot: Radley, seventeen, is volunteering in Haiti when she hears the news: the president has been assassinated, the news reports are scary, and all Radley wants is to be home, safe, with her parents. She can’t get through to them, so she boards a plane hoping they’ll get the message she’s coming home.
“Home” has changed. Planes are rerouted, customs take hours, she is looked at with suspicion; the TV news shows vigilante groups and looters; new laws enforce curfews and travel restrictions.
When Radley’s parents don’t show up at the airport in New Hampshire, she’s scared. Her cell phone is dead, she doesn’t have the charger, she has no cash, her credit cards are worthless. Radley does the only thing she can think of: she starts walking home.
The Good: “Dystopia” tends to be a word used for any futuristic world where bad things happen. In April, The Horn Book defined it as follows: “Dystopias are characterized as a society that is a counter-utopia, a repressed, controlled, restricted system with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often key, as is a consistent emphasis that this is not a place where you’d want to live,” adding that “while shambling, brain-eating zombies; nuclear holocausts; electromagnetic space pulses that knock out most of the population; or alien invasions all make for compelling reading, they do not necessarily fall into the category of dystopia. Now, if the survivors of those various tragedies form a messed-up society where freedoms are curtailed in order to protect its citizens from imagined future terrible events, then we’re talking dystopia.”
Safekeeping doesn’t start with zombies or nuclear holocausts or aliens. The backstory is simple: the American People’s Party was voted in, the president was assassinated, and the APP has used that as an excuse to seize control using laws, restrictions, arrests, and fear. The details of how this all happened are few, both because Radley was in Haiti while some of this was happening, and because now that she has returned she doesn’t have access to news (assuming that such coverage would be accurate). Is it a place I’d want to live? No; like Radley eventually does, I’d be looking for a way out. This makes Safekeeping a unique addition to the current dystopia genre: a world very much like our own, only one election away, with no supernatural or paranormal occurrences.
Before all this, Radley was a typical teen. Perhaps a bit spoiled; or, rather, she is a child of privilege who doesn’t realize her privilege. It’s the privilege of leaving clothes behind in Haiti because the orphans could use them, and “Mom will buy new stuff for me when I get home.” When she realizes her cell phone charger is also still in Haiti, she thinks, “my parents never scold me about the frequency with which I lose things. They always fix it for me, no matter how I screw up. I’m used to them just fixing it for me.” She’s also a teen who took time to go to Haiti, to volunteer, so “spoiled” is the wrong word. A better word is “easy”. She has had things easy. Even her time in Haiti was with the safety net of knowing comfort and her parents were just a flight away.
Radley’s return home puts her in a dire position: someone suddenly “without.” Someone who has fallen through the safety net. In Haiti, she had gotten used to less but was aware it was temporary. Now, it’s different — with no food, no money, and no one she can trust, Radley sleeps in the woods, begs for food, and searches through dumpsters. Because society is still standing, even if it’s over regulated, Radley can still go into a public washroom to get water. This isn’t a case of total fending for oneself; it’s a case of having to take care of oneself because society cannot be trusted. When Radley cannot find her parents, she cannot go to the police or to neighbors or friends because she fears the consequences. She doesn’t want to be arrested, to disappear into prison — and she sees just enough on the news, observes just enough on the streets, to realize her fears are well founded.
Safekeeping isn’t about changing the world; it’s about surviving the world. It’s about one teenager. All Radley cares about is making it through another day, lasting long enough to find her parents. As someone who is now on the fringes, she stays on the fringes — she doesn’t meet up with any resistance group, or looters, or even any APP members. She doesn’t quite trust any of them. In some ways, she is lucky; where she lives and where she travels are places where she can be alone, can disappear, can leave space between herself and the others who also are wandering the roads either looking for safety or fleeing from danger.
Radley is alone: and at first, it was almost painful, how alone Radley was. As pages went by, I realized just how few times she spoke to others, interacted with them. Even though external things were happening, Safekeeping is mostly about what is happening in Radley’s head as tries to adjust to this new reality. Sometimes, what Radley was going through almost seemed dreamlike, in a nightmarish sort of way but also in how it was equally about what she was feeling as what she was doing. In other words, this isn’t a book that will help you survive an apocalypse; in terms of surviving a dystopia, the tips are more “keep to yourself, get to Canada.” (Yes, Canada is the promised land of freedom). It is a book that will help in terms of emotional and mental survival, as Radley tries to figure out what she needs to do, how to take care of herself when others have always taken care of her, and, how, eventually, to take care of others.