911: The Book of Help

h1 September 10th, 2006 by jules

911.gifI always wanted to read this book, published in 2002. But I never got around to it. I finally picked it up a week or so ago, knowing that the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was looming. And now it’s just one day away. I can still hardly believe it ever even happened.

911: The Book of Help is sub-titled, Authors Respond to the Tragedy. And that’s just what it is — a collection of twenty-two essays, poems, and short fiction by authors who typically write for young adults with drawings by Chris Raschka (done on the day of the attacks as the second tower fell), all created in response to the terrorist attacks. Edited by Michael Cart with Marc Aronson and Marianne Carus, a portion of the book’s proceeds were given to The Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund. All of the authors and Raschka donated their work. The title of the book makes a seemingly obvious connection between the date of the attacks to the emergency assistance phone number one uses to call for help. (But this terrible irony of the attacks is something that doesn’t always occur to folks right away). The book is divided into four sections: Healing; Searching for History; Asking Why? Why? Why?; and Reacting and Recovering.

I’m really glad I read it, though I wasn’t sure I was up to the task, given the grim, emotional subject matter. These gifted authors provide us — guided by the editors’ expert hands — various lenses, if you will, in which to view the tragedy of the attacks. I can’t imagine a better guide for discussion of the tragedy for a group of teens or adults — or for individual rumination — given the variety of perspectives the book provides.

One of the perspectives given is one we are introduced to immediately in Cart’s opening piece (one of my favorite themes of all time, too): the power of art to heal — in this case, how words can begin to heal us in the wake of such destruction. Cart tells us in the introduction that we must believe in the saving power of words, in their “power to inform the mind, heal the spirit, and help us deal with even the worst of adversity.” And, in the first essay to arrive to the editors, Katherine Paterson invokes the words of Barry Lopez — that the task of fiction is to “sustain us with illumination . . . to repair a spirit in disarray” with Paterson adding that she believes this is the task of all the arts (theatre, music, dance, literature, etc.). Later, Kyoko Mori adds, “{b}y capturing these moments in words, we are drawing our own invisible doorways in midair, pointing a way to beauty and understanding — proving that just as surely as hatred exits between people, beauty also exists in the universe.” Virginia Euwer Wolff contributes a readers’ theatre-type piece in which three young musicians search for understanding after the planes hit the towers via music: one turns to Bach, another to Beethoven, and the other to Brahms. And Naomi Shihab Nye, one of my all-time favorite authors who is brilliant and stupendous and did I mention brilliant (and who wrote one of my favorite poems ever), contributes to the book as well. Her entire essay is about the power of words to help us recover. “USE WORDS,” she writes. “Whether we write them down for ourselves or send them into the air as connective lifelines between us, they help us live, and breathe, and see.”

We are also given stories of the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Katherine Paterson’s adult son, David Paterson — a playwright himself — takes us inside Ground Zero as he volunteers with the rescue and clean-up efforts; Walter Dean Myers writes an essay from London in which he speaks with immense honesty about the hostility he feels towards the young Middle Eastern boys who cheered at the news reports of the attacks; and Arnold Adoff, remembering the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., writes, “Martin, I cannot t u r n a New Testament c h e e k/I can onlyhope tokeep myfists in emptypockets.” Yet another lens from which to view the horrors is the memories of previous wars. Kyoko Mori recalls stories she heard as a child in Japan of World War II chaos and destruction, and Susan Cooper recalls life as a child in England during the same war, another time of defense and attack, she writes. And Avi provides another perspective, that of larger metaphors. He contributes a touching autobiographical account of a childhood experience, the horror he felt when he thought he’d killed a bird with his new BB rifle:

“The bird fell perhaps thirty feet. Then just before it hit earth it miraculously righted itself, regained its sense of flying — and life itself — and flew away.

If I had been horrified one moment — what I now felt was enormous relief. It was as if the bird had been given another chance: a chance not to die. But, I was, too: a chance not to kill again.

For a long while, I just stood there in the meadow, rifle in hand. I had been shaking. It took a long while to calm myself down, to relive what had happened over and over again.

Slowly, I walked out of the meadow back to the house. I opened the trunk of my parents’ car, and dropped the Red Rider rifle in.

When I got home, I took that rifle apart. Day by day — secretly — I threw away each part.

When I witnessed — on television — the fall of the twin towers — I had a sudden and vivid recollection of that moment. This time, however, the bird did not rise.”

But the most incisive essay in the collection — and one that touches upon a theme delivered by other authors — is the one written by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. This essay should be required reading for all high school students. I’d put that in all caps for emphasis, but I don’t want to yell at you, our devoted blog reader. Aronson once guest-lectured for a day in one of my graduate courses. I was struck by his passion. It teemed from him; it swarmed around him. I was not surprised to read his impassioned, wise words in this essay. He and Budhos honor the complexity of the issues surrounding the attacks, acknowledging that the obligation of our country’s economic successes and world domination is communication with other countries — “learn one another’s languages, listen to one another’s music, pay attention to one another’s leaders and policies, study one another’s faiths, be, together, citizens of the world . . .” Opening the essay with a cogent description of how America might appear to other countries, as its power comes primarily through business and the media, they describe how America “may well seem like a kind of disease, a poison, spreading into your world.” Without in any way justifying the attacks that took thousands of innocent lives, they simply provide a backdrop of understanding for those teens who might be too quick to judge. If you don’t care to read this book, at least pick it up to read this insightful essay.

This book with its thoughtful, complex writings and penetrating poetry is simply a must for all high school libraries — and for any adults wanting to read some beautiful writing that attempts to make some sense of the chaos and destruction that was 9/11.

6 comments to “911: The Book of Help

  1. Thanks, J. You’re braver than I am – I haven’t been able to stomach anything about 9/11 except “Fireboat” by Maira Kalman. But you may have talked me into this one.

  2. yeah, most folks probably need to put at least five years between the attacks and these types of writings — just ’cause it was so traumatic…

  3. it was the trauma, yes, but it was also the media saturation. you remember, for weeks and weeks all anyone showed on tv were crashing towers and crying people. i couldn’t take it, and i guess i still can’t.

  4. Ah, I see what you mean. I can understand that. One must be ready to read this book. And I’m so very happy to have found that Aronson/Budhos piece.

    Oh, and I have to tell my Aronson story (from the day he visited one of my grad courses) —

    He, at one point during the day, discussed his wonderful book, ‘Art Attack: A Short Cultural History of the Avant-Garde’ (published in ’98, i think it was), and he played for us students an aria (don’t remember which). He was listening to this gorgeous music, and he sat down and closed his eyes and kind of swayed a bit and was very obviously moved by the music (and I guess I should add that he struck me as a very intense man anyway) — he was struck by the music in that way that William Hurt’s character is in that devastatingly perfect always-makes-me-cry scene in “Children of a Lesser God” when Marlee Matlin’s character asks Hurt’s character to *show* her why he enjoys Bach, and he’s playing that beautiful Bach piece and trying to sign to her why it’s so good and he’s so obviously moved by the piece that he can barely open his eyes. Or, ooh! ooh! like that other stunning always-makes-me-cry scene in “Philadelphia” when the lawyer guy is at Tom Hanks’ house, and Hanks’ character gets lost in that aria, and the camera’s swirling around the room with the music and tears are running down his face — OMIGOD SO WONDERFUL. Anyway, like that.

    But it wasn’t in a showy, hey-get-me-I’m-so-intense-and-passionate way. It was real. He was just about bowled over by his passion for the music. And he sat there listening to this sublime aria for what seemed like forever. I looked around the room at one point, and some students were looking at each other, as if to say “What’s with this guy? He’s supposed to be lecturing”, but I loved the moment and just wanted to walk up to him and say, please be my friend, hang out with me, and teach me more.

    The moment made me think of a line of poetry (or was it prose??) that I wrote down once way back in high school (attributed to Rilke, but I’m not so sure now that’s right): “Her smile was meant to be seen by no one and served its whole purpose in being smiled” . . . but since I’m a librarian and all, I should find out if Rilke really wrote that, ’cause it just doesn’t sound Rilke to me now.

    That’s my Aronson story, told in my usual roundabout way, and I’m stickin’ to it. — j.

  5. wow, that’s a good story. maybe we should add a new blog post category for cool author encounters.

  6. ooh, ooh, yes! share yours, too. i have little to no opportunities now to meet and greet authors, since i’m the “stay at home, mom!” (hate that phrase — at least the way it sounds, i think it should be punctuated the way i wrote it there).

    i really wanted to approach aronson about a book that my prof had encouraged me to try to get published (a poetry collection — not my original works either) — i felt unworthy and, someone just tell me, how DO you approach someone like that and say, publish my work! i’m just no good at it. then shannon c. and i were gonna tweak this collection and mail it to aronson and try again, but we NEVER FINISHED THAT PROJECT. HOW LAME OF ME. shannon, are you there?!! let’s try again. tee hee…..

    but i digress. — j.

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