A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors

 

Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.

The books reviewed in this series are available through Wilmington's Pettee Memorial Library, the Whitingham Free Public Library, and locally owned Bartleby's Books in Wilmington.




9/11 Recalled From the Front Lines

Garrett M. Graff, The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. Avid Reader Press, 2019

Americans over thirty years old (maybe even a little under), remember exactly where they were and what they had been doing on September 11, 2001 when they heard that an airplane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Many of them spent the day in front of their TVs, watching the Twin Towers crumble, watching black smoke rise over the Pentagon, and learning that a fourth plane had crashed in the countryside near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But others, who had started the day in an ordinary fashion, were caught up in the horror that most Americans merely watched. Garrett Graff's book presents the day from their point of view, in their words. The result is a deeply moving history of the day's horror, confusion, and heroism.

Rather than transcribe the stories of one speaker after another, Graff organizes the memories by chronology and location. He begins at 8:00 AM, with portraits of the day's ordinary beginning, from President Bush's meeting Florida school children to other people's hurrying to airplanes or to work. Then the narrative moves to the hijackings, almost minute by minute, as the two planes crash into the Twin Towers. These and the attack on the Pentagon are carefully interspersed with reactions in Florida and Washington DC—and with the reactions of staff and passengers on United Flight 93 that led them to crash the airplane. Weaving events and reactions enables Graff to make a cohesive narrative out of individual experiences, thus demonstrating the chaos that accompanied the morning's tragedies. One of lesser-known memories in this narrative comes after it becomes clear that a fourth hijacked plane is heading to Washington DC. Vice President Cheney authorizes two F-16s to shoot down that plane. The narrative then switches to the two pilots—a man and a woman—who rush to unarmed F-16s, with orders that if they can't "wave off" the plane, they must do a kamikaze attack. As they get ready to go, he says he'll ram the cockpit; she says she'll take the tail off the plane. She remembers thinking her take-off was her last, because "If we did it right, this would be it."

One thing that strikes a 2020 reader is how much of the confusion that surrounded official responses to the attacks was caused by lack of communication unthinkable in the post 9/11 world. Part of the problem was technological: Bush couldn't reach Cheney by phone when he was first informed of the attacks; a little later, Cheney, desperate to get presidential authorization for shooting down United Flight 93, couldn't reach Bush. Air Force 1's TV tuners were "like old-school rabbit ears"—they could only pull in relatively close stations. That meant that once the president was consigned to the only plane in the sky, he was constantly out of touch with what went on below him unless he was flying near large cities. But through the chaos and shock, it's the voices of the people who were most deeply affected by the attacks that stay in readers' minds. The rescuers who, having rushed out to Shanksville, stop in horror as they realize there is nobody to save. The husbands and wives who manage to say "I love you" as the Towers burn or the airplanes are about to crash. The firemen who, looking up at the flames 90 stories above them, shake hands in a gesture of support and farewell before they start up the stairs past escaping office workers. The owners and pilots of the armada of small boats that carry thousands of escaping New Yorkers across the river to New Jersey. Their voice are all there, full of fear, confusion, loss and humanity. If you read only one book about 9/11, read this one.