________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006


Safe House.

James Heneghan.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2006.
151 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 1-55143-640-X.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Dave Jenkinson.

*** /4

Reviewed from prepublication copy.


They had him.

He fell to the floor. The big man swung his boot and kicked him hard in the ribs. Behind his mask, his eyes looked like the cold dead eyes of a fish.

“He saw me!” growled the big man. “He saw me, I know he did.” He pointed his gun, finger tightening on the trigger.

The boy scrambled away, petrified, his back pressed against the wall.

The other man pushed the gun away quickly. “He’s only a child!”

The big man reluctantly lowered the gun. “He’s no child! A filthy little Taig is all he is. I say we kill him and then get the hell out of here before anyone sees us.” He raised the gun again.

As the book opens, it’s one o’clock on an early July morning in 1999, and two men, their faces masked by balaclavas, have broken into a house in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast, Northern Ireland. There, they shoot to death a man and his wife, Dan and Fiona Fogarty, who are in bed. Following the murders, one man removes his balaclava before realizing that there is someone else in the house, a young boy who may have seen his face. Before the killer can shoot 12-year-old Liam Fogarty, the pajama clad boy escapes down a drainpipe and runs into the street where he finds safety amongst his neighbours, who, alerted by the gunfire, are congregating. While Liam is taken in that night by Delia and Jack Cassidy, his best friend’s parents, almost immediately another attempt is made on Liam’s life, a situation which again sees Liam on the run. Although Liam safely escapes once more and returns to the Cassidy home, the police decide that Liam must be placed in protective custody until the killer, whom Liam has nicknamed “The Mole” because of a distinguishing facial feature, is caught. Only four people will know the location of the safe house in which Liam will reside. The Irish Catholics of Northern Ireland do not completely trust the members of the largely Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, and consequently Liam is not entirely surprised when one night at the safe house, as he goes downstairs to get some food, he finds the Mole, dressed in a police officer’s uniform, concluding a financial deal with the safe house’s proprietor to assassinate Liam. Again Liam is on the run, a lengthy chase which finally concludes with the Mole’s falling from the roof of the city hall.

     On the one hand, Safe House can simply be read as a thriller, one filled with lots of action which occurs over a period of less than two weeks during which time Liam must three times flee from his homicidal pursuer. However, the book’s happenings take place against the background of the Troubles, the attempts by Irish Catholics to unite the divided Ireland while the Loyalists, largely Protestants, try to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Consequently, Safe House also offers middle school readers an opportunity to gain some preliminary insights into this conflict. As Liam and readers come to learn, retaliation was the simple motive for the murder of Liam’s parents. Because a jailed Loyalist paramilitary chief had been stabbed to death by a Catholic prisoner, Protestant Loyalists were exacting revenge on Catholics, and the Fogartys, although they had no connection to the prison stabbing, became a convenient target. Inspector Osborne of the Royal Ulster Constabulary explains to Liam and the Cassidy family, “Dan Forgery was well known. He was a community leader and a peacemaker. Everyone knew your father. The price of fame in Belfast is sometimes death.”

     Heneghan uses numerous flashbacks throughout the novel to provide readers with some background both on Liam’s past family life and the Troubles, the latter’s causes and the impacts of the sectarian violence on ordinary peoples’ daily lives. As additional background to the historical roots of the internal political/religious strife, Heneghan includes a concluding two-page “Appendix” of “a few [nine] of the dates that Liam memorized in school,” dates stretching from1170 AD, when the King of England declared himself also to be the King of Ireland, to April 10, 1998, when a peace accord, aka the Good Friday Agreement, was signed.

     While Delia Cassidy, along with Liam’s memories of his father’s moral stances, are the book’s strongest voices against employing violence to resolve disputes, Heneghan also suggests that a solution to Northern Ireland’s problems may be found in having members of the next generation learn to work together as they grow up. Both Liam and his best friend, Rory Cassidy, are part of the Belfast Community Youth Circus. “Started originally as a way of creating friendship and harmony between young Catholics and Protestants, it continues to encourage kids to forget their differences and work and train together.” Not only does Liam establish friendships with Protestants in the circus school, especially with Nicole Easterbrook, but he learned valuable balancing skills which came into play during his final encounter with the Mole.

     Although the brevity of Safe House limits the book’s ability to deal with the complexity of Northern Ireland’s violence, the book remains a good read, one which might stimulate some resourceful middle schoolers to seek out other resources on the topic.


Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children’s and adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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