***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
This book is a punch in the gut. Another reviewer has said (remarking on Woolston's bravery, I think), "This book doesn't care whether you like it," and it's true, in the best way. I think it's also true of Woolston's previous book, Catch & Release, and I admire her for writing without worrying about her reader.
I listened to this in audiobook format, and Kate Rudd's performance is excellent for this story. At three hours and twenty-three minutes, it's very spare and moves along at a quick clip, almost like a movie. Rudd makes Val's voice a combination of primitive and other-worldly, with staccato (but not hard) articulation. It makes Val sound naive and confident at the same time, which fits perfectly with this child who has been raised by a militant doomsday "prepper" and has had no access to the outside world. Her language has not been softened or molded by contact with teachers, peers, store clerks, etc. She believes only what she has been taught. Her natural goodness doesn't have a chance to blossom.
Woolston's storytelling is clean. She writes exactly what she thinks the story requires, with no padding, no long diversions into her own lyricism. The entire book seems to me to be a meditation on freedom and nurturing--what it takes to put humanity into human beings, and how much harm you can do by depriving someone of both. Val has been indoctrinated from an early age that the Black Helicopters killed her mother--a claim that's never proven. Val discovered her Mabby dead in the vegetable garden and heard choppers overhead, but doesn't mention finding wounds on her mother's body. It's her father who links her death with The Others. Later, we see evidence that his associates also work in human trafficking along with the explosive manufacturing and home-grown terrorist bombings, so Da is clearly in deep with nasty characters, and Mabby's death could be linked with those forces instead (or even natural causes).
Val's father is such a wonderfully gray character: strong and protective; a man who gives his children survival skills and clearly loves them, but who makes catastrophic parenting mistakes because of his paranoia about the government, choice of career, and relationship with seedy characters. Val's brother has some (limited) freedom to move about in the world, but because Da has decided that Val's handwriting will be on all the documents claiming responsibility for bombings (in an effort to make the world aware of the Black Helicopters), Val has to be a child who doesn't exist--who is entirely off the grid. She hides in their underground safe room (the den), and never goes beyond their woods.
Her father dies in a house fire while Bo and Val are in the woods. There's no explanation for how it happened, but I think we're meant to presume that it was an accident with explosive materials. Da posthumously gives them instructions on how to find a colleague who will take care of them. The colleague rapes Val repeatedly with his thumb, and forces her to play vaginal roulette with a gun (calling it paying her "rent") whenever Bo is out on delivery runs. The siblings escape to a compound Bo has made deliveries to--a group that Bo trusts. We also learn that he's falling in love with a girl there: it's a striking example of how Bo--with his truck and his contacts--has been out in the world, eking out some of that freedom and nurturing that makes a person human, while Val has been closeted and abused, with only her father's paranoid teachings to fall back on. The people in the compound seem decent, and want to bring Val and Bo into the fold--a possibility that Bo embraces, shaving his head to look like the other boys. Val mistakes the humanizing of Bo as weakness, and staunchly sticks to her father's vision of the world and their place in it. She cunningly uses her skill at chess to beat the leader of the compound, negotiating for herself the "prize" of strapping on a suicide vest to blow up an unnamed location on the next job. The plan goes awry, Val carjacks a boy her age and his little brother, and the rest of the novel is her emotional deterioration on this car ride--aimlessly looking for a target to blow up, wrestling with the fact that she is involving innocent people in her plan. Although we don't see the actual ending, she is reaching to detonate her vest as she speaks her last words (the book is told in first person).
Plausibility is a big issue for me in books. I want everything to feel believable, and I was so disappointed to see Black Helicopters stumble at the end, in the very last pages (minutes). When the boy escapes from Val by smashing her over the head with a tire iron, she is airlifted in a helicopter for medical attention. The medics are fully aware of her vest--they know not to try to remove it because it might explode. They know who she is from the boy's phone call to 911. It makes absolutely no sense that they would not bind her hands while they're working on her and waiting to meet up with the bomb squad to help with the vest. I think you're supposed to presume that they believe she's a pawn in a larger organization, that they can't imagine the indoctrination that happens when a child is deprived of a normal existence, and that they're operating under a different code for human behavior. Perhaps that's the point--contrasting what they are from what she thinks they are--but in the real world, in our post-September-11 paranoia and trampling of civil liberties, the people in the helicopter would not make that mistake.