BookBrowse Reviews How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister

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How to Be Safe

by Tom McAllister

How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister X
How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
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    Apr 2018, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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A scathing satire on American life in the story of a small town's response to a devastating school shooting.

One April day an unnamed boy stops for pizza before heading to his school in the township of Seldom Falls. This will be his last meal because he is about to kill nineteen people and wound forty-five more. But How to Be Safe is not his story. Instead it is the story of Anna Crawford, a teacher at the town's high school, who is not there that day because she has been suspended for insubordination, and who is suspected of involvement in the tragedy. How To Be Safe charts a year in her life, and of Seldom Falls, in the aftermath of the shooting.

As a narrator, Anna is searingly honest and self-deprecating but also bitingly cruel in her observations. Having had her house torn apart by the FBI and spent hours under arrest for a crime she played no part in, Anna's life is in free-fall. She is unemployed, depressed, and increasingly paranoid about the dangers of the modern world: from microbes in the air, cars driving into crowds, air travel, and physical assault by men.

The wider population of Seldom Falls, at least initially, seems to be coping better than Anna. Everyone is trying to get back to normal, but Anna can't manage it. She even lets go of exercise regimes because there is no point in strong muscles and bones when flesh can be ripped apart in seconds by bullets.

As the town comes together to plan a memorial for the victims of the tragedy, Anna suggests digging an enormous hole, filling it with guns, and burying them to see if nature can turn them into something else, just like dinosaurs have become fuel and coal turns to diamond. She tries to move forward in a range of ways, some quite comical, including joining a church group that sends her to a gun show to shop for the weapons arsenal they are building in a bunker in the woods.

People take things to an extreme in Seldom Falls where, in a touch of magical realism, the sun literally goes out when the school shooting happens. Here, not only are teachers armed after the tragedy, select school children are too. There is a public burning of violent video games and the shooter's house is turned into a museum as "massacre tourism" grows in popularity. Police wear SWAT gear, surveillance drones fly around and politicians declare an "all-out war on violence" without a whiff of irony.

The line between what happens in Seldom Falls and what has happened in real life in response to such awful events, is paper-thin at points. The novel is a scathing satire that pulls no punches in its examination of American life today. It shows no mercy to politicians, religious groups, gun activists, the mainstream media, and internet trolls. Even men, with the exception of Anna's brother and boyfriend, are excoriated throughout. At times, hope for the human race runs pretty thin, yet McAllister finds optimism at the end of Anna's year. How To Be Safe is a damning, yet also beautifully written book and Anna is a character to root for despite–and because of–her many flaws.

Reviewed by Kate Braithwaite

This review is from the How to Be Safe. It first ran in the May 2, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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