When teenagers Emery and Jake sign up to teach French to Mrs Campbell’s first-grade students at Lincoln Elementary, they do it for different reasons- Emery wants to be a teacher and thinks that this would be a good introduction to the profession, while Jake is using the tutoring exercise as a way to avoid attending his school French classes. What neither of them expects is for their lives, and those of the children, to hang in the balance when a crazed gunman takes their classroom hostage...
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and having served in Iraq, Brian Stutts only wants to take his son Patrick home with him. Rightly believing him to be emotionally unstable since his return eight months before, Stutts’ wife is trying to get full custody of Patrick, and Stutts is determined to stop her from taking his son away from him. Using his warped rationale, he believes that the best way to do this is to take Patrick from his classroom, giving his wife no chance to interfere. What he doesn’t expect is for the school to refuse him, thereby starting a snowball effect. In less time than it takes to visit the school office, a classroom of young children, two teenagers, a teacher and a hamster are in lock-down mode, while a small-town community struggles to make sense of what’s happening.
When the school security guard is shot, and Mrs Campbell is evacuated following a diabetic coma, Emery and Jake find themselves responsible for the lives of the school children. They have to keep them safe, entertaining them and comforting them, until they can get outside help. They have no idea when they will be rescued, and have to rely on each other to keep trigger-happy Stutts occupied. This partnership is made slightly easier considering Emery and Jake’s previous dating history (and the fact that they know each other well enough to anticipate each other’s moods and thought processes). Although their relationship came to an uncomfortable end months earlier, they are able to put aside their differences in a mutual effort to keep calm the desperate returned soldier, and stop him from shooting up the room.
Using different strategies, the teens do their best to placate Stutts and keep everybody safe- Emery works on a personal level, approaching Stutts and trying to make him see that they are people rather than targets. She gets him to open up, revealing his feelings about his time in Iraq and his views on the limited help available to soldiers on their return home. Meanwhile, Jake uses his technological savvy to communicate with the outside world and try to find out what the police are doing to help.
This novel is fast-paced and filled with tension- you can’t help but wonder what will happen to our two teenage narrators as they try to negotiate for their safe release. With the action beginning right from the start of the novel, and not ceasing until the ultimate, tragic conclusion, McDowell’s first novel explores the often-hidden damages of war, and the personal ramifications of mental health issues. The themes in this book are vivid and emotional, yet essential reading for people who want to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder, and the role that war has played in many of its victims.