STARRED REVIEW
April 03, 2018

After another American school shooting

By Tom McAllister
Review by

This prescient, achingly real novel comes on the heels of the latest school massacre in Parkland, Florida, where 17 high school students and teachers died on Valentine’s Day.

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This prescient, achingly real novel comes on the heels of the latest school massacre in Parkland, Florida, where 17 high school students and teachers died on Valentine’s Day.

How to Be Safe explores the many questions that crop up, clockwork-style, after every all-too-frequent American school shooting: Was the shooter bullied? Whose gun did he use? Why is the shooter always a white male? Would a good guy with a gun have stopped the bad guy? How did everyone miss the red flags? How does the community heal and more forward?

Former English teacher Anna Crawford is still licking her wounds after being suspended from her job when she hears that the unthinkable has happened in her town of Seldom Falls, Pennsylvania: A kid entered the school and mowed down his classmates. In the confusing aftermath, Anna briefly finds herself a person of interest. Everyone knows her complicated history: She is a local girl whose brother has done stints in jail for drug crimes, and her father killed himself when she was 24. Sometimes she says strange things. Sometimes she drinks. Like so many women, she’s been abused and mistreated by men.

Reporters crawl all over the town, flashing Anna’s picture on television screens until police exonerate her. But even after she’s cleared, Anna’s view of Seldom Falls—and its view of her—has changed forever.

Despite its searing subject matter, How to Be Safe is beautifully written. It’s also occasionally funny (a state senator declares, “As of this day, we are declaring an all-out war on violence.”). Author Tom McAllister (The Young Widower’s Handbook) presents a clear indictment of modern America’s sickness: a toxic mix of disappearing jobs and opioids and misogyny and isolation and violence. He’s not afraid to give voice to the issue that so many politicians step around. As he makes clear, there are solutions.

Instead, the town arms its teachers and debates what the inevitable memorial will look like. “Each memorial represents a collective commitment not to remembering, but to whitewashing the memories, to creating a more palatable version of the memory for ourselves to hold on to and repeat and eventually accept as the truth,” Anna says. “The memorials were there to hide failures, not to be critical of them. Every memory is false, and with each subsequent remembering, it becomes even more false.”

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How to Be Safe

How to Be Safe

By Tom McAllister
Liveright
ISBN 9781631494130

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