Review: Black Helicopters

Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston. Candlewick Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: “I’m Valkyrie White. I’m fifteen. Your government killed my family.”

Valley has been bathed, so that she doesn’t smell of wood smoke and instead smells like other teen girls.

Valley has been dressed, in jeans and a T-shirt and a hoodie, to look like other teen girls.

Under the hoodie is a vest. The vest with a detonator. And because she is locked in a hut, because she hasn’t seen her brother for days, all I can think is, what has happened to this girl, that she is being forced to do this?

No one is forcing Valley to do anything. This is her choice. Black Helicopters is the story of how Valley’s life came to this, this one moment, of Valley and the explosives and her finger on the detonator. Her choice.

The Good: It will be next to impossible to talk about Valley without talking about spoilers. So if spoilers ruin a book for you, stop now.

Black Helicopters is deceptively short. It’s 166 pages, with a small trim size and plenty of white space. I read it in less than two hours. I’ve thought about it for much, much more time than that.

Black Helicopters covers two days: the day when Valley gets dressed up with her vest and the day after, and flashes back to eleven years ago, eight years ago, last year, to understand why this is her choice. But is it her choice? What is a choice, to a fifteen year old girl raised a certain way?

Valley loves her older brother Bo and her father and her mother. At first I think, oh this is a back to nature family, living off the land, not bothering anyone. A wee bit extreme in how far off the grid they are, but that is all. What is clear is the fierce love and loyalty the family shares. A man loves his children and want to teach them the way of the world and how to be safe. Siblings love and protect each other. What is wrong with that?

As Valley talks about them the reader realizes things that Valley does not. She is being raised by a survivalist, somewhere in the rural United States, probably Montana. She is being raised to believe that black helicopters can kill you without leaving any visible signs, because that is just how Those People are, they will come after you and kill you. Like eleven years ago, when her mother was out in the garden, and then she was dead, no blood or anything. Because that is how Those People are. Da knows the truth, and he will teach his children.

Valley tells us that her father likes clocks and takes them apart and teaches his children how, and that he hates the modern all electric clocks, and then it’s a few pages later that the reader realizes that no, her father isn’t just some return-to-old-fashioned ways man living off the land. No.  Her father is making bombs. Those bombs are being used for her father’s customers — people who want to send messages using bombs. They send these messages against judges who legislate from the bench, or the message may be about abortion, or about laws. Valley’s father has his own message to go with the bombs: a message about his own beliefs about what it means to be free and how to make people believe.

And this is the point where I really step back and talk about spoilers. Valley was raised a certain way, indoctrinated a certain way, isolated to such an extreme that all sources of information are controlled by her father so that she never had the chance to question. She and her brother Bo are also taught to be obedient, to obey what their father says, no matter what.

Part of what leads Valley to put that vest on is her total belief in her father’s beliefs. Part of what leads Valley to put it on is how she has been taught to obey. Now, this doesn’t mean she is obeying someone else as she takes off on a suicide mission. Rather, after her father dies (“your government killed my family“) she and Bo follow their father’s instructions to go to one of his work colleagues and trust that man to help them. What happens to Valley shows why raising children to be totally obedient can be a problem and dangerous. It is not just the sexual abuse that Valley is secretly subjected to, it is also her belief in the power of that man and her belief that there aren’t any options. It turns out that Bo also blindly trusted, but his trust just leads to loss of money and the loss of faith in himself for his failure to protect his sister.

Valley and Bo manage to escape the man who uses them. “Escape” for them is different than for other people because of what they’ve been led to believe about the outside world. They go to yet another group they know from the fringe groups their father interacted with. They get a slightly happy ending by moving in with a family that probably are some type of white supremacists (Valley doesn’t say for sure, probably because she doesn’t know, but that’s my guess). These folks show the most kindness, acceptance and welcoming that Valley and Bo have seen in a long time. It’s only “slightly” happy because it is here, among Dolph and Wolf and Eva (you see why I make my guess about the group these people are associated with) that Valley decides what her next step needs to be, and why, and that step is the vest.

I have not mentioned Eric or Corbin. When Valley goes into the world to do what needs to be done, she encounters two brothers, ages about seven and seventeen. She tries to manipulate and control them both, in part to achieve her goal of finding just the right targets (Eric has a car) but also because, as an abused child, once she has the chance to hurt others like others have hurt her she takes it so that she can be the one with the power. Without saying exactly what happens, when someone like Valley defines power in a certain way, they don’t truly understand other people and can underestimate them.

This is not a happy story. I have to confess, while at one or two points I felt sorry for Valley or pity for Valley, I never quite liked her. Thoughts like “I could twist his fingers until they broke, but I didn’t think I would need to do that” froze my heart. But, I don’t have to like her. I just have to see who she is, and why she is that way, and what shapes a person to get to that point.

This is a dark story, because it’s about a young woman so twisted by her upbringing that her path can only end one way. Thinking back, part of what is terrifying about Valley’s story is that her parents loved her. Her father loved her. It’s so much easier to think of “crazy bomb-makers” as being full crazy and full mean and evil in every part of their lives.

What reader is this for? Well, readers of Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott to begin with. The combination of much to talk about and short book also means this will be great for book discussions. I can easily see Black Helicopters being discussed as a Printz potential, as well as being nominated for both YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.

Because of how Valley is still sitting by my, making me think of her, her choices, her illusion of choice; because it’s making me think of parents and children and how children are raised; because it’s making me think of so many things, Black Helicopters is clearly a Favorite Book Read in 2013, even though I wanted to scrub my brain clean afterwards.

Other reviews: Stacked.

2 thoughts on “Review: Black Helicopters

  1. “Thinking back, part of what is terrifying about Valley’s story is that her parents loved her. Her father loved her. It’s so much easier to think of “crazy bomb-makers” as being full crazy and full mean and evil in every part of their lives.”

    EXACTLY. That’s what made me go back and reread this book two times after I made it through the first time. It’s just…for 166 pages, I think it’s interesting how we talked about entirely different things but that’s because there is so much to dig into here. I liked Val, even though she had some quite unlikable qualities about her, but I wonder how much was about sympathizing with her vs. liking her for her. This was a mind-screwing book and it’s one I’m still thinking about. I wonder if revisiting it in a couple months would unearth an entirely different read/entirely different take aways.


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