In a departure from her verse novels, Karen Hesse’s new dystopian book, Safekeeping, envisions could happen if our government lost the respect and control of its people. After the president is assassinated, seventeen-year-old Radley immediately returns from volunteering at an orphanage in Haiti to the United States. She is unable to contact her parents in Vermont before she leaves. When she lands in Connecticut, she finds that the government, ruled by the American People’s Party, has instituted martial law. Her parents are not waiting for her at the airport, and she cannot cross state borders in a bus or car without authorization. With no one to call, Radley feels must walk from the airport in Manchester to her Brattleboro home; however, when she arrives after days of walking on her own, her parents are nowhere to be found. Radley fears they have been taken into custody because of their opposition to the government, and she believes that the police will come for her soon as well. Convinced that her life is in danger if she remains in the United States, Radley takes off on foot for the Canadian border. With little money and no food, she must scavenge out of dumpsters to eat and sleep in the woods at night. Along the way she meets another girl, Celia, who is also traveling north with her dog. The girls journey together and slowly develop a friendship as they struggle to survive.
Karen Hesse is a very skilled writer, but I don’t think the dystopian genre fits her well. Safekeeping is an interesting novel that offers a lot for young readers to enjoy, but there are too many unanswered questions to fully embrace this book. Why did the American People’s Party come into power? Why was the president assassinated? Why is it so easy for Radley to fly into the United States but so difficult for her to get a ride home? Given that Radley is very naïve, why would her parents let her volunteer at a young age in a dangerous third world country on her own? There is also a problem with all the photography in the novel. Hesse includes her own photographs, but they often distract more than add to the narrative. Finally, the ending feels abrupt and artificial.
Safekeeping does have certain strengths though. This book is a page-turner. You want to find out what happened to Radley’s parents and if the girls will find safety. Hesse develops the complicated friendship between Radley and Celia in a slow, believable fashion so that you care about what happens to them. Finally, unlike most dystopian novels, there is very little violence or profanity.
Safekeeping is a good novel, but it will not be remembered as one of Hesse’s great works. I applaud her attempts at a new genre, but I hope that she will return to the historical verse novels that she does so well.
3 out of 5 stars
Grades 6 and up