Book Review: Safe as Houses

Safe As Houses, by Eric Walters, is ripping good story about Hurricane Hazel and its effects on three kids who are stranded in a house slowly being flooded. Weston and  Etobicoke figure prominently–Roy’s house, in fact, is only a few feet from where the story takes place, and one of the characters, David McBride, shares the name of the man who owned my house before me.

Elizabeth Hardy, the protagonist and narrator, is a 13-year old just starting to grow up. She splits her love between Donnie Davis (a boy in her class) and Elvis Presley; she babysits David and Suzie McBride every day after school to save up for his albums. The McBrides have just moved from the big city, Toronto, to the sticks, and David, the eldest, is still angry about it. His relationship with Elizabeth is strained: he is almost old enough to take care of himself, but he cannot behave well enough.

The story takes place after several days of torrential rain, just before the Humber River reaches its peak. The children walk home from school—presumably Weston Memorial—in the lashing storm and cross a footbridge, which, when it is destroyed, will separate them from rescue. What unfolds is a night of progressing horror. Elizabeth wakes up to find water up to her knees. It continues to rise, threatening and terrifying the children. Like the best horror movie monsters, the river is one dimensional, indestructible, and pitiless. It knows nothing but how to rise.

The book is written for young adults, but I enjoyed it and stayed up long past my bedtime to finish it. The story starts a little slowly and the characters are, at first, drawn a bit broadly—but suitably for a young-adult audience.

Before I read Safe as Houses, I thought of the Hurricane Hazel disaster as an abstract catastrophe that was the result, primarily, of bad city planning. This book opened my eyes. The hurricane was an epic natural disaster, and it is described grippingly in the last third of the story. The deaths of passing characters are haunting, and give a human dimension to the statistics: 32 people in Weston died, and 81 were killed in Toronto.

(If you buy the book, I make a 45¢ commission)