Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Only Plane in the Sky: On Oral History of 9/11 - Garrett Graff ---------- 4 Stars

While not intentional, the coincidence of my reading of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic beginning, created a fascinating juxtaposition. As 9/11 was probably the last crisis that most closely resembles our current challenges, it was interesting to relive one of the most horrible and memorable days of American history.

This book provides an oral history about September 11, 2001. It begins early that morning and, deliberately and very intentionally, goes through the day by retelling people's own stories and recollections of what occurred. The book provides an unbelievable account of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who had connections to either the World Trade Center, Pentagon, United 93, or something else relevant from that day.

It was a heavy but captivating read. Graff does an incredible job of thoughtfully helping the reader remember each aspect of the day by painstakingly editing interview after interview so the reader is left with a clean story from start to end. Of course, the story is so much more than just a tale about the day. The beauty of these interviews is how personal they are; literally, each word is provided by someone remembering how the events changed their life. I can't imagine the work that must have gone in to both, interviewing the hundreds (or thousands of individuals), and organizing and editing what is most useful for the text.

Finally, while an engaging book that was hard to put down, it really was hard to go through and remember this awful day. I, of course, could easily remember my own memory of the day - turning on the TV briefly before heading to a college Pol. Sci. class and seeing one of the Towers burning and being confused. Then, after class, heading to the student center to see the other damage done with my fellow classmates. Then,  going home and watching the rest and trying to understand what the hell happened. This book, in a visceral way, really brought those memories back.

As it felt like this was the last time our country was in a true crises, until now, it's interesting to compare the two. One event was quick with a massive impact of death and injuries; the other, a slow, painful killer. One was a purposeful event by foreign terrorists; the other, an unintentional act. One led by a president who clearly understood the entire tenor of his presidency would change forever (W. Bush), the other, well, not a leader in any way, shape or form. Really, the comparisons could go on and on with one similarity clear - fear, anxiety and pain are at the heart of both.

While I would not recommend this book if you are struggling with sadness/anxiety with our current situation, it may be a useful read in remembering a painful day, but also, how our nation found a way through and came back on the other side. Certainly something we all pray for now.

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