Review: Safekeeping by Karen Hesse


October 15, 2012 by Heidi

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse book coverTitle: Safekeeping [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Karen Hesse [Website]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Speculative Fiction
Published: September 18th, 2012 by Feiwel and Friends
Format: Hardcover; 304 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher.

Radley just wants to get home to her parents in Vermont. While she was volunteering abroad, the American People’s Party took power; the new president was assassinated; and the government cracked down on citizens. Travel restrictions are worse than ever, and when her plane finally lands in New Hampshire, Radley’s parents aren’t there.

Exhausted; her phone dead; her credit cards worthless: Radley starts walking.

I was very excited when I first saw Safekeeping.  I’d read Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust as a child and remember loving it, in fact, I could tell you exactly where it sits in the family bookcase back home because I never lose track of those books I truly enjoy.  And so I was greatly disappointed to read through Karen Hesse’s latest and find that, while it may be beautifully written, it portrayed a world beyond the realm of possibility or belief and focused heavily on style over substance.

Honestly, Safekeeping made me angry.  And not the type of angry that a book is supposed to make you feel when it’s well researched and makes you think about something you might not have wanted to think about, or talks about a sore subject.  It made me angry because I feel like it was a political commentary book written by someone who had no understanding of how the United States government functions.  I actually had to go look up Karen Hesse and see if she was, in fact, from the United States (she is).

Safekeeping photo illustration by Karen HesseThe premise of Safekeeping is that the American People’s Party has been voted into power by an under-educated populace (yes, it is actually said that we made poor voting choices as a poorly educated nation), and apparently, this party has the ability to entirely change everything about the way our government functions   Of course, I can only say apparently because nothing in this book is ever actually explained.  Chaos descends when the president is assassinated, which from my understanding was the APP president that had been voted in, and then the party has to wrestle for control of the government among a wildly protesting population.  Apparently, quite suddenly, this is the only party with any power in Washington D.C.  They can rush through all sorts of laws without any checks or balances, and it seems as if they’ve declared it a military state, though again, this is never explained.  One of my favorite parts was where everyone who dissents from the government gets thrown in jail.  You know, political agitators, popular bloggers, because apparently all of a sudden the First Amendment (and I’m assuming the Constitution and Bill of Rights) mean absolutely nothing.  I couldn’t help but thinking that giving Safekeeping to any kid would be providing that poor education Safekeeping seems so afraid of.

I like that Hesse tried to make a dystopian-esque future that was close to home, but it didn’t work.  The methods were so underdeveloped (seriously–you will have no idea what is really going on with the political situation ever in this book) and unrealistic that I remain baffled that this even made it to print.  Pile on top of that the complete naivety about the United States’ relationship with Canada and Safekeeping starts to feel like anti-U.S. propaganda.

In the story, Radley escapes the turmoil currently underway in the United States by walking to Canada.  Along the way she is joined by Celia, and Jerry Lee–a girl and her dog.  Now, pretty much right across the border they’re safe.  They’re safe because Canada feels essentially zero effect from what is going on south of their borders.  You’d think that Canada wasn’t our biggest trading partner, or that we didn’t have strong defense arrangements that might be affected by the United States becoming a police state with a collapsed government.  No, of course not–everything’s fine!  Not only that, but Canada’s totally cool with illegal aliens.  They really don’t mind letting in whoever wants to come from the United States and not asking any questions–even after the U.S. government is stabilized and refugees could safely return home.  Canada’s just that nice.  I honestly do love Canada, but completely ignoring our political relationship for this book is a wee bit ridiculous.

As far as the characters go, I liked Radley okay, and I really did love the way this was written and how she developed, I just wish there had been any sort of world developed around them.  Radley is so accustomed to having her parents fix everything, but for the first time finds herself as someone others depend on.  She takes care of Celia, a girl she meets on the road to Canada.  Again the confusion though.  The way Celia is spoken of, I could have sworn she was a twelve year old girl until we find out that she is, in fact, nineteen–a year older than Radley herself.  Radley is a very naive character, but she is also willing to struggle and learn.  Naive, not stupid, but also inexplicably fearful.  When Radley initially returns to her home she is so certain that the police are after her to throw her in jail (even though there is no reason but paranoia for this fear) that she doesn’t talk to anyone.  Had she bothered to speak with her neighbors, or the police who visit her house daily, she (and we) could have learned a great deal.

Safekeeping photo illustration by Karen HesseFinally, I’m afraid I cannot finish this review without acknowledging the photo illustrations included therein.  Karen Hesse includes her own photographs in the book, and I’m sad to add insult to injury and say that they are not good.  They are beginning photography class not good.  On top of which, they are shoved into the story with no context and do little if anything to add to the tale.  I was very confused.  Radley’s mother is a professional photographer, and when Radley leaves her home she takes with her a stack of her mother’s photographs.  It is at this point that they begin appearing in the book.  Sometimes the pictures go with the text, but more often they do not.  For example she’ll be talking about daisies, and there will be a picture of flowers, but they aren’t daisies.  Okay fine if they’re her mother’s photographs, but then why when she talks about specific photographs are they never there?  And frankly, as I said, it’s hard to believe that a professional photographer would have taken any of these.

Safekeeping may be beautifully written, but I’m sorry to say that’s the only good part about it.  I often enjoy being thrown into books when I have no idea what’s going on, and love having things fall into place as I go, but with Safekeeping they never do.  There is no world building, no explanation.  To me it largely seemed like a promotion for Canada and volunteering in Haiti.  I can hardly say those are bad messages, but I don’t like the vessel one bit.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  
I won’t write off a Newberry author for a dud, but I do think I’m going to be more comfortable reading her middle grade work, and will approach new reads with caution.

Recommended for:
Honestly, I have a hard time recommending this book to anyone.  While there were good hearted messages, the plot relies on the ignorance of the reader for it to be believable.

Get a second opinion:
Melanie’s Musings – “Safekeeping ultimately feels anti-climatic.  It’s a wandering tale with a disjointed story…Add that to the disappointing photos, and Safekeeping was not a win for me.”
A Reader’s Pensieve – “I honestly will not be recommending this to anyone and am pretty disappointed overall.”


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  1. I just read this on Saturday for readathon and I sadly have to agree with all of your points. There was virtually no world building and I thought adding the photos was stupid because, like you said, they were NOT GOOD. Had they been professional and relevant, sure, add them! But no. I thought they were really distracting.

    I also hated how preachy it was by the end. Preachy books = not for me!

    I think I was most disappointed because I also loved Out of the Dust and was expecting something great. I have this one in my classroom but I won’t be book talking it, gotta be honest.

    • Heidi says:

      Glad to see you agree with me Kyle. Sometimes I have a hard time telling if maybe it’s me projecting my own politics on a book, or if I really am stepping back and still seeing a mess. I’m okay with things collapsing if there’s some world building to explain why, but there wasn’t anything! I agree, it seemed preachy which I really dislike. Me just telling my boyfriend about this book made him want to read it because of how angry it made him by proxy.

  2. Jill says:

    I adored Out of the Dust in elementary school, so I had my eye on this new one. Guess I won’t be picking it up now! So would Hesse’s fictional state of the US be acceptable as long as the devolution to such a state were explained?

    Also, I kinda really want to see the photos to understand how elementary they are!

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, I would be okay with what was going on in the United States if there were some acceptable explanation for it. The First Amendment can’t just go poof, tell me how the current government has gotten around these things, why they’re being ignored, what exactly happened that is allowing this to go on currently. We need to see how the country degraded into its current state of being, but in Safekeeping it seems as if it goes from our present to a police state in a matter of days. This makes no sense without some world building.

      Also, you’re right Jill, I should have included some of the photos–I’ll try adding some in! :)

  3. Sarah says:

    I got a random copy of this book in the mail and flipped through it and was really irked by the photography–it was described as “haunting and original,” but they were really kind of… not good. So, I didn’t dive into the story, because that element annoyed me so much.

    • Heidi says:

      Yep, you pretty much saved yourself there. I’d actually requested a copy of this for review because of my previous experience enjoying Karen Hesse’s work, and the “haunting and original” description. Really disappointing.

  4. Wow, I haven’t heard of this book before and I guess I can see why now. I’m so sorry this one disappointed you, Heidi! Perhaps I’ll check out Out of the Dust instead? I have to admit though, the premises for this one does seem very anger-inducing, so I can definitely see where you’re coming from. Wonderful review though, dear! I love how all your reviews, even for books you didn’t enjoy, are all so well-written and thought-out. Beautiful. :)

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Keertana! Out of the Dust is a wonderful MG historical fiction about the dust bowl, and I really do recommend it if that sounds interesting to you (it did win the Newberry Medal). Before picking this one up, I was very surprised not to really have seen it mentioned around the blogosphere given the author. After reading, I’m more understanding of why.

  5. janicu says:

    Oh man. Are those examples of the photography up there? Hmm. Sounds like they were indulgent additions and not really necessary to the story. I think with dystopias I have to be able to buy the premise. It’s very important. So I probably wouldn’t like this one either. Book to avoid I think.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, those are examples of photography in the book. There are some better ones, but in general, that’s the sort of thing you have to expect. I certainly felt as if it was indulgent and unnecessary to include them. Yes, there needs to be a viable premise, and this wasn’t whatsoever. Just skip it.

  6. I think world-building like this (or the lack of it) pretty much makes a book unbearable to read for me. This is why we have checks and balances. This is why we have substantive and procedural due process rights in the Constitution. Even if uneducated Americans did elect an idiot, that party would not control both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court off the bat. It is so hard to change the process and reinterpret the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. I mean, the Patriot Act was a total departure from a lot of our longheld beliefs and there have been arguments, lawsuits, articles about that for years.

    Maybe I’ll read her Newbery award winner instead.

    • Heidi says:

      Mmhmm, exactly, this book made zero sense in terms of the way our government actually functions, and the worst part is it kind of assumes that the reader doesn’t know enough to know any better. This was one of those that was honestly like a train wreck, it made me so angry I couldn’t stop reading it to see what completely messed up thing it was insinuate next.

      But yes, Out of the Dust is wonderful, at least I loved it as a kid.

  7. Melanie says:

    Celia’s age is something that completely confused me too! It’s so odd the way she’s presented.

    Another aspect of the story that was weird to me was the fact that when Radley talks about the daisies, she says something to the effect that her mother used to skimp in order to be able to afford buying flowers, even though Radley spends the majority of the novel saying how privileged her upbringing was.

    I’m glad to see we agree on this one. At least I’m not alone! Thanks for the link, Heidi. I’m appreciative.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes! The money thing. I’m just not sure this book was thought out at all, and I feel like it really wasn’t critiqued enough in the process maybe because the author is so successful. And don’t worry, you’re not alone! I keep seeing the word ‘Printz’ listed alongside this one and being utterly confused. Absolutely not.

  8. VeganYANerds says:

    Well this sounds odd and completely unrealistic, I’m sorry it was such a drag for you. I’ve never heard of it and now I will know to give it a miss 😉

  9. This one didn’t catch my eye and I see that is for a good reason. I am so bummed out that you were so disappointed in it.

    There are so many things you mention that I’d love to point out, but ultimately I’m just gonna say that I’m glad I chose to skip over this one. So sorry this one wasn’t for you, Heidi. I think you may be right when you mention that she was trying for the dystopian-esque thing and it fell flat. Bummer.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, it was a disappointment, but it happens to the best of us. It was one of those ‘omg I can’t believe this is happening’ type books that made it hard to put down even as I was finding it completely outrageous. At least it was a quick one!

  10. […] it did win the Newberry.  Let’s hope it’s not as big of a disappointment as the last time I made this gamble. Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster [Amazon|Goodreads] (Purchased) Flannery wrote […]

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