Thursday October 11, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Like many others here in Blue State Vermont, Karen Hesse found the political tidings of 2010 to be more than a little distressing.

"Watching the news in 2010 forced me out of my normally apolitical corner. Listening to the Tea Party rhetoric made my head feel like exploding," wrote the Newbery Medal-winning Brattleboro author in an e-mail exchange with the Reformer. "When I imagined a world in which Tea Party types dominated the government, I found it impossible to find peace anywhere. And so, to cool my screaming anxiety, I began to write."

Thus began the journey that ultimately led to "Safekeeping," Hesse's latest novel -- suggested for ages 12 and up -- which was published by Macmillan and hit the shelves in mid-September.

Set in the not-so-distant future, "Safekeeping" envisions a dystopian America in which the American Peoples Party has taken over, clamped down on liberties and ignited violence and chaos. Coming back from volunteering abroad, Radley, a teenage girl, just wants to get home to Brattleboro. But when she gets there, she finds her parents aren't home. With no other options, she sets out on the road, on foot, to find them.

Hesse will be appearing at the Brattleboro Literary Festival this Saturday at 10 a.m., at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St., to discuss her work. Space is limited.

To get from the first, outrage-driven draft to the finished book, Hesse embarked on a unique journey in which she actually walked many of the miles her character Radley walks.


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Always a devoted researcher, Hesse found the journey an important way to connect with Radley, but the impetus for it, at first, came when her editor "dangled before my eyes the carrot of using my photographs to enhance the text, something I'd been eager to do for years. That was incentive enough to thrust me back into that scary world, to immerse myself in the way one must write convincing, compelling fiction," Hesse wrote.

So Hesse set out with a backpack, a camera and a novelist's eye and mind. In the spring of 2011, she walked between Manchester, N.H., and Brattleboro, then in Vermont from Brattleboro to Newport.

Those miles were helpful, and not just because she captured the haunting photographs that are an important element in "Safekeeping."

"It's not that I wanted a slavish link between image and text, but I needed to move with my camera along Radley's route during the season she walked it to capture something essential and real," Hesse wrote. "There were so many leaps I needed to make in the book; I felt certain that doing the walk was imperative to completing the project credibly (despite protestations from family and friends). Even though I had no idea how very much I would learn walking those miles, how much insight I would gain into Radley's character, into human nature, and into the literal and figurative landscape of my book."

The early reviews are good. Kirkus wrote: "Hesse offers some of her best in lavish descriptions of nature and mood." School Library Journal gave it a starred review, calling it "a masterfully written powerhouse of a book."

Hesse herself said "The novel is both bleak and hopeful. The same could probably be said of all my work."

Hesse has written more than 20 books for children and youth readers, including Newbery Award-winning "Out of the Dust" and "Brooklyn Bridge" and many other novels. She is a 2002 winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant.

With "Safekeeping" out and in readers' hands, Hesse is taking a rest from writing, except for speeches in support of her book. When she's not out promoting her book, she is devoting much of her time to making hand-knit dolls, which she sells, with 100 hundred percent of the proceeds going to the Orphelinat Foyer Evangelique in Haiti to feed, clothe, provide medical care and education for the children who live there.

For more information about the Brattleboro Literary Festival, visit www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org.