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Review: Safe Harbour - Christina Kilbourne

Genre: YA Fiction

Published: Dundurn Press, December 2019

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Fourteen year old Harbour is not homeless, she tells herself. She’s merely waiting for her home — a thirty-six-foot sailboat — to arrive with her father at the helm… Until then, she spends her summer living in a tent with her dog, a credit card, an eccentric reading list and her dad’s promise that he’ll be within a few weeks. But when months go by without a word from dad, her credit card gets declined and summer turns to frosty fall, things are starting to look fairly bleak.

With the help of a homeless girl named Lise, Harbour struggles to navigate her life on the streets, and tries to find out the truth about what happened to her father.

Before we start: a small disclaimer:

Christina Kilbourne choses to tackle some heavy topics, some of which like homelessness and the American shelter system, do not get featured much in YA fiction. I very much appreciated that, and curious to see how she would approach this. This subject matter however, does make it hard for me to give you an informed opinion. I’m not from the U.S. and social security, child welfare and the shelter system are very different where I’m from. In short: it was hard for me to suspend my disbelief at times, as I kept thinking that none of this would fly, and there’s no way a child could slip through the cracks this much.

At the same time, I’m aware that it might be far from the reality I know, but maybe not far from the reality in America. I truly hope it isn’t, but if it is: please America, get your social system together… This shouldn’t be our reality…

About the book:

Despite all the heavy topics, Christine Kilbourne does a brilliant job of balancing out the heavy moments with the lighter ones. Most of that comes from the character of Harbour herself, who is a wonderful character to read from. It’s often difficult for an adult-author to write from the perspective of a child or teen, but Kilbourne nails it with the portrayal of this 14-year old teen: she has the right amount of maturity to take basic care of herself for now, but has enough naivety and childlike wonder in her to show she’s far from a grown-up.

It’s this childlike lookout that makes the book a bit lighter: like a true child, Harbour is able to see the fun and adventure in some aspects of her situation. In her friendship with Lise and childlike naivety, she tries to create her own fun be pretending this is all a big camping trip, instead of a life-altering crisis. As an adult it’ frustrating to see her behave like this, but it’s authentic for her age, and Kilbourne makes sure never to cross the line to romanticising Harbours circumstances.

The writing style and pacing are accessible and match the target audience well, making for an engaging story that fourteen-year-old-me would have loved and learned a lot from.

Apart from all the good, I have two points of critique that got in the way of my enjoyment. I mentioned suspension of disbelief earlier. Throughout the book we learn that Harbours father has some eccentric beliefs, and that the circumstances surrounding his boat trip may have been a bit suspicious. Although I can see how Harbour wouldn’t have recognized this, being a child and unable to distance herself from the situation, I’m not buying that nobody else noticed. I just couldn’t understand why nobody would step. Even Lise who’s a bit older ánd has distance to the situations should have been able to see something was off… I don’t think it’s the best message to send to young teens to tell them it’s okay not to call in authorities in this case…

My second dislike was the ending. About 70% in I began to prepare for a tear-jerker ending. Harbours situation seemed so bleak that there was no way this was going to lead to a happy ending. Yet somehow, the author tried to put that spin on it in the end. It felt very rushed and unbelievably convenient, and took a lot away from the messages the book had to give.

Many thanks to Dundurn Press for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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