O Canada: Safe as Houses

safe.jpgEric Walters just writes and writes and writes. I don’t know how the guy does it. I think he has 4 books coming out this year? Since 1993, the man has published 39 books. Crazy. So it’s no surprise that he’s one of the most prolific and widely recognized Canadian writers for children and young people. Safe as Houses is his most recent novel.

Of late, some of Walters’ most celebrated works have addressed contemporary (some say controversial) issues: Shattered – a teenager gets to know a soldier who had been a peacekeeper during the Rwandan genocide, We All Fall Down – the main character experiences the events of September 11th in New York City, and Bifocal (with Deborah Ellis) – which deals with the arrest of a Muslim student suspected of terrorist affiliations. When he’s not tackling tough, current issues in his work, Walters sometimes heads to the past for inspiration. In Safe as Houses, he offers a look at one of the most dramatic weather events in Canadian history: Hurricane Hazel.

Lizzie Hardy babysits the McBride kids every day after school. 12-year old David McBride thinks he’s too grown up for a babysitter, and he lets Lizzie know it by dishing out as much attitude as he can, just to be difficult. His little sister Suzie is the main reason Lizzie keeps doing the job for a little extra cash. On October 15th, 1954, the kids walk through an intense rainstorm to the McBride home, close to the Humber River in Weston, Ontario. Only a few hours later, Lizzie starts to feel afraid. This is no ordinary storm. The children are alone and trapped in the house in the dark, with water rising faster than they realize. The story follows the events of that night, and the choices the children make as the flood waters threaten to sweep them away.

Safe as Houses is a quick read. You don’t have much time to get to know these characters. In fact, I don’t think it’s all that important that the characters be nuanced in this story. We need to care about them enough to hope that they make it, but we don’t need to feel that we understand them intimately. And we don’t. Lizzie is the responsible, quick-thinking good girl. Suzie is the sweetie-pie innocent. David is the trouble-maker hiding a heart of gold. Done. Walters builds sufficient tension, creating a claustrophobic feeling as the night settles over the house and the storm rages outside. Tension grows in spite of the fact that you know where the story is heading. The kids are resourceful and realistic and the story is quick and gripping. I imagine a lot of kids will find it hard to believe that these dramatic events happened right here around Toronto.

I liked Safe as Houses. It’s not nearly as good as my favourite Walters’ book, Run, on the life of Terry Fox. When I picked up Safe as Houses, I was told that it was very much “an Eric Walters type of story.” I think that Eric Walters knows how to open kids’ eyes to important events, of the past and the present, in a way that is totally engaging and accessible to a wide range of readers. For weather-loving young’uns, pair Walters’ book with Steve Pitt’s Rain Tonight, another fascinating look at Hurricane Hazel’s devastating effects on Southern Ontario.

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