Tom McAllister’s How to Be Safe tackles one of the biggest flash points in American politics: mass shootings and our repeated failure to stop them. This novel looks at a mass shooting through the viewpoint of a character who is caught up in the aftermath, even though she had nothing to do with the crime. Anna Crawford shows us how paralyzing fear can be and how helpless we feel to keep ourselves safe. The science fiction notes heighten the book’s angry commentary on the ridiculous ways that politicians come up with to “solve” the problem without actually tacking on America’s gun culture and industry.
The mass shooting occurs in the book’s prologue. A young teenaged boy, wracked with loneliness and twisted by the belief that killing a bunch of his classmates (and then himself) will somehow achieve something, eats a slice of pizza before going to the school. Paragraphs describing how his victims die are interspersed with the boy’s thoughts. After the prologue, we switch to Anna Crawford’s perspective for the rest of the book. Anna was a teacher at the school in this small Pennsylvania town before being suspended for posting online about how much she hates working there. The social media posts lead the police and FBI to her house (which they destroy looking for evidence), thinking she might have had something to do with the mass shooting. Even though she is quickly exonerated, Anna is shattered.
Unlike the rest of the town, Anna’s life has imploded in a different way. While the rest of the townspeople try to cope with having lost so many people in a terrible crime, Anna has her sense of safety ripped away by the way the police and everyone else viciously turn on her. The rest of the town “copes” with the shooting in the way a lot of other towns have unfortunately learned to deal. There are a lot of speeches. There is a memorial that everyone fights over. Gun sales go up. Anna retreats into her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, even sleeping in a couch fort for a long time. She tries religion, but the church she chooses is actually a cult. No one listens to her, but they are very willing to give her advice about how to get better. Anna’s depression and paranoia gave me a stark sense of her dislocation from the rest of her world.
How to Be Safe is not the angriest book I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly in the top five. The parts of this book that don’t mourn the boy’s victims or focus on Anna’s fear of the world around her are an incendiary indictment of American gun culture. In spite of ample evidence that Americans need to give up their guns, politicians and gun rights activists vehemently argue that guns are the only thing that can “keep us safe.” Parts of this book made me angry as well (and I will absolutely vote for politicians who are pro-gun control), it mostly made me despair. Gun control and gun rights in America are a bitter topic because both sides are so adamantly opposed to each other’s point of view that it seems like we will never find a way to be safe from mass shootings.