By Beck McDowell
Available now from Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin)
Beck McDowell doesn't shy away from big subjects in her debut. In THIS IS NOT A DRILL, an armed veteran comes to an elementary classroom looking to take his kid out of school early. The completely awesome teacher tells him he needs to follow procedure and refuses to just let Brian Sutton take his son away - leading to Sutton taking the class hostage.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL is told through the alternating points of view of Emery and Jake, high school seniors who tutor the class part time. They've very clearly got a past - Emery dislikes working with Jake and is mad at him for some reason. The exact details unfold as the two work together to protect the kids. Jake, I would say, has a more dynamic character arc than Emery, but both are fairly stock characters. But THIS IS NOT A DRILL isn't about their character growth, so it doesn't matter that they're pretty thinly drawn. It's a thriller with a decent-sized helping of political commentary.
McDowell puts little kids in danger, which both ups and lessens the tension. It's scarier because no one wants little kids to get hurt and the kids are terrible at behaving and not angering the upset gunman. They need to go to the bathroom, they can't sit for too long, they get into fights. They're kids. But it's less scary because I never felt that McDowell would actually transgress convention and kill one of the kids. Only the older characters felt like they were in danger. (McDowell also gives the death count at the beginning, which definitely makes it seem like the kids will be fine.)
As for Sutton, he's suffering from PTSD and clearly didn't integrate well into civilian life after his tour and Iraq. His wife definitely has grounds to divorce him and go for full custody, and he definitely overreacts, but McDowell still makes a decent point. Soldiers not getting the psychological support they need after spending time fighting a war is a real problem. At the same time, the message of THIS IS NOT A DRILL is delivered in such a ham-fisted manner that I literally cringed while reading.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL is a surprisingly quick and easy read, given that it's about a school shooting. There are some really clever moments, as the teacher, Emery, and Jake try to get help without Sutton noticing and hurting someone. And I did hope than none of them would be included in the final body count, no matter how unlikely that seemed. But what could have been a taut thriller went off the rails every time it started to harp on PTSD and the government's responsibility to soldiers. It's even a point I agree with, but it just kept killing momentum instead of being folded into the action. THIS IS NOT A DRILL is an okay read, but ends up being more forgettable than hard hitting.