If you haven’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the United States of America, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tom McAllister’s How To Be Safe was set in a dystopian world where mass murder was commonplace.
It tells the story of a school shooting in a small town from the perspective of a teacher who wasn’t there. It explores the reaction of everyone – from the first person survivor’s guilt and the teacher herself, through the community suffering the death of their children, to the global media and politicians arguing over gun control.
The events are framed through the very specific lens of protagonist Anna Crawford, whose less than favourable departure from her teaching position labels her a suspect.
The story follows her as she deals with her own grief and guilt, as well as that of her community and her country, over the course of a year. People hurl arguments around about restricting guns or arming more people. A local militia demand that things change, without offering any constructive advice. The surviving community commissions a memorial to the victims.
A year passes, and nothing changes.
Anna’s internal monologue examines every point raised viciously. The book does a very good job of not feeling like it’s trying to argue for any side. Instead it breaks down rhetoric and critiques it in the harsh way of someone whose trauma has no patience for anyone’s bullshit. It never feels like the book is trying to preach; it convincingly portrays the perspective of someone struggling to understand one of the most horrific things imaginable.
McAllister has mastered writing emotions, as Anna’s feelings are clear and infectious throughout the book. It’s easy to get caught up in her anger and her fear and to see the bleakness in people. In particular, the comments they make that promise thoughts and prayers but nothing that’s actually helpful, and the frustration that comes with it.
Most of all, McAllister beautifully conveys the sense of profound isolation that Anna feels, even when the global community is supposedly clubbing together to make the world a better place.
The book opens with a prologue written from the perspective of the shooter. It depicts him as entitled and angry, channelling his own existential angst by hurting others, but also naïve. Later on, his home and his writings are opened up to the morbidly curious public. These reveal him to be a worryingly normal boy, whose arrogance makes him think that the same futile search for meaning that inspire most teenagers to get piercings and middle-aged men to get motorbikes is far more profound than it really is.
The mundane normality of the killer strips him of all the notoriety that he wanted. It reveals him to be an arrogant and selfish little boy whose life was so devoid of meaning that he needed to take the lives of others to compensate for it.
He is also openly sexist. On the way to commit the shooting, he stops to stare at a woman he doesn’t know, who he describes as being simultaneously attractive and reminiscent of his mother. He thinks about how being in a relationship with her would make his life infinitely better, how all of his problems would go away and how the fact that she won’t look up at him and fall immediately in love makes it her fault he is about to kill school children. His lust turns to hatred and blame.
Throughout the book, McAllister draws an explicit parallel between the entitlement of men who see women as objects they can claim and the selfishness of murderers who see the lives of others as something they have the right to take.
In general, the shooter is not seen as an especially unique or special person. He has the same prejudices as a lot of people in his demographic. He isn’t anywhere near as intelligent as he believes himself to be. He is a broadly typical young man who doesn’t know how to handle his angst.
The book explores a lot of the different societal causes for creating young men like this. The general sense of self-inflation granted by invisible privileges. The fetishisation of violence and guns promoted as normal things for young men to engage in. The lack of support – and occasional outright derision – for young people struggling with their mental health.
The shooter’s story is definitely a sad one, but after his actions he isn’t offered a lot of sympathy.
The book is written with a dark sense of humour that comes across as both a coping mechanism and genuinely funny. Anna is far from a perfect character and she knows this. She acknowledges when she is being irrational and accepts that some of the decisions she makes aren’t always wise. Her self-awareness gives her a sense of sympathy for the other people in the story.
As a small town teacher, Anna has all the information she needs to offer an honest obituary for every person killed in the shooting, around chronicling her own experience. She sidesteps the clichés published by the newspapers, either canonising or demonising the murdered children so people can accurately allocate their sympathy.
By contrast, Anna points out their flaws in a way that humanises them. She talks about the Asian boy who the media theorised may have become a terrorist if he had lived. She talks about the straight A cheerleader who was also caught shoplifting, without it meaning that you care any less about the fact that her life was cut tragically short.
There are some ideas in this book that could have been explored further. The militia who launched a passionate campaign, only to go home when they got bored and cold, were very intriguing but sadly under-utilised. The significance of their cache of privately-owned guns made no difference whatsoever to how safe their little town was – they didn’t stop the shooter, they didn’t change the law, they didn’t convince anyone to do anything that changed anyone’s experience.
Anna also hears about legislation to arm both teachers and chosen students as a means to keep people safe within schools. This has so much potential for a genuinely intense discussion, but aside from Anna’s gut reaction it doesn’t get a lot of discussion.
Exploring both these concepts in more detail would have made for a very interesting read and it’s a shame they didn’t get more pages devoted to them.
This book brutally and profoundly examines the USA’s relationship with guns. It tears apart the contemporary conversation surrounding gun control with no mercy. It isn’t subtle in its critique of people’s rhetoric. It doesn’t offer any answers, but it makes it clear that the arguments being offered now aren’t answers either and that the people with real power need to do better. It holds them accountable for the continuation of violence due to their inability and even resistance to implement real change.
The book ends a year after the shooting. Anna is finally clawing herself out of her depression by reconnecting with her family. Her town still feels like there is something missing that no one can quite put their finger on, although on the outside it looks like it has healed. She is not ready to completely leave it just yet.
Eighteen years since the Columbine school shooting, six years since Sandy Hook, mere months since Parkland, this book is painfully relevant.