This is another dramatic novel from Eric Walters based on a true story. Safe As Houses (2009), in this sense, is an ironic cliché. Houses should be safe, hence the expression. However, this particular house, its neighbouring houses and its occupants are not safe. It’s October 15th, 1954 and Hurricane Hazel is about to hit its peak in Toronto, Canada. Worse, Suzie and David McBride are home alone with their teenaged babysitter, Elizabeth, and their dog, Daisy.
Elizabeth, a typical teenager, loves having a job, lives close to the McBrides, goes to the same school, is crazy about Elvis Presley, and adores sweet little Suzie who’s in grade one. David, however, is another matter. The McBride’s have just moved to the neighbourhood and David’s having a difficult time adjusting. He misses the friends from his old community and isn’t quite at the same place as his new classmates. He feels alone and angry. He’s had a few run-ins with new teachers and resents having a babysitter. After all, he is in grade 6 and old enough, he thinks, to walk his sister home and watch out for her until his parents get home. He’s continually butting heads with Elizabeth, challenging her authority and just generally being contrary. His parents have said that when he shows some responsibility he won’t need a babysitter anymore. He’s about to get that opportunity.
As they reach the Humber River, they notice how fast it’s moving and an unusual amount of debris being carried away.
We got to a long set of wooden steps that led down to the river. . . By the time we came to the footbridge that crossed the Humber the noise of the river had risen to a roar. The water raced by, brown and foamy and angry. Caught in its flow were tree branches, bobbing and bouncing along in the current. (p.113)
They arrive home from school soaking wet but safe and soon settle into their after school routine with hot chocolate, Oreos, and the one-station TV set. The McBride’s home is part of a kind of experimental community; they’ve bought the shell and land but have to finish the inside themselves — as evidenced by the unfinished floors, doorless kitchen cupboards, the TV antenna installed but not hooked up yet, and lumber piled in one corner of the living room. But as the water outside, then inside, continues to rise, both the McBrides’ and Elizabeth’s parents phone to say it’ll be longer still before they can get to the children, the power goes off, and then the phone dies, too. When David tries to take Daisy out at her usual time, the water is already up to the top of their front walk. It’s all they can do to close the door again because of the wind.
Because Suzie is scared, both David and Elizabeth try to put on a calm façade while trying to figure out what to do. David proves to be quite resourceful; tools are his ‘thing’. He moves the kitchen table under the opening to the second story and they climb up to safety. Before long, they have to climb higher and eventually to the roof where they huddle together dumbfounded as they watch dead animals swept away and near-by houses twist off their foundations and move down the street in the torrent of water that has overflowed the Humber.
Eric Walters has done a lot of research into this Canadian disaster and has created an accurate story of bravery in the face of extreme danger. His characters are believable and the events more than a little scary. When I was teaching, I read this book to my grade 5/6 students; I wouldn’t recommend it for younger students simply because of the nightmare reality portrayed; I feel it requires more maturity and confidence than a younger child might possess. When you finish the book, you might want to learn a bit more about this very real natural disaster so I’m providing a few interesting links here. An extremely compelling read that adults might enjoy as well as young teens. * * * * *