Saturday, July 11, 2020

Non-fiction Review: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

Title: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11
Author: Garrett M. Graff
Year Published: 2020

Genre: Adult non-fiction
Pages: 425 (plus notes, sources, and index)
Rating: 5 out of 5

Location (my 2020 Google Reading map)USA (New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC. Louisiana, Florida, and Nebraska)

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Over the past eighteen years, monumental literature has been published about 9/11, from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which traced the rise of al-Qaeda, to The 9/11 Commission Report, the government’s definitive factual retrospective of the attacks. But one perspective has been missing up to this point—a 360-degree account of the day told through the voices of the people who experienced it.

Now, in The Only Plane in the Sky, award-winning journalist and bestselling historian Garrett Graff tells the story of the day as it was lived—in the words of those who lived it. Drawing on never-before-published transcripts, recently declassified documents, original interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, Graff paints the most vivid and human portrait of the September 11 attacks yet.

Beginning in the predawn hours of airports in the Northeast, we meet the ticket agents who unknowingly usher terrorists onto their flights, and the flight attendants inside the hijacked planes. In New York City, first responders confront a scene of unimaginable horror at the Twin Towers. From a secret bunker underneath the White House, officials watch for incoming planes on radar. Aboard the small number of unarmed fighter jets in the air, pilots make a pact to fly into a hijacked airliner if necessary to bring it down. In the skies above Pennsylvania, civilians aboard United Flight 93 make the ultimate sacrifice in their place. Then, as the day moves forward and flights are grounded nationwide, Air Force One circles the country alone, its passengers isolated and afraid.

More than simply a collection of eyewitness testimonies, The Only Plane in the Sky is the historic narrative of how ordinary people grappled with extraordinary events in real time: the father and son working in the North Tower, caught on different ends of the impact zone; the firefighter searching for his wife who works at the World Trade Center; the operator of in-flight telephone calls who promises to share a passenger’s last words with his family; the beloved FDNY chaplain who bravely performs last rites for the dying, losing his own life when the Towers collapse; and the generals at the Pentagon who break down and weep when they are barred from rushing into the burning building to try to rescue their colleagues.

At once a powerful tribute to the courage of everyday Americans and an essential addition to the literature of 9/11, The Only Plane in the Sky weaves together the unforgettable personal experiences of the men and women who found themselves caught at the center of an unprecedented human drama. The result is a unique, profound, and searing exploration of humanity on a day that changed the course of history, and all of our lives.

Review: I hate to confess that I cannot remember the blog on which I first heard about this book, but thank you! I remember reading that the blogger really liked this book so I bought it, but I didn't realize how it is set up and how well it is done.

It's a bit like reading a play because the author lists the person's name, job title, where they worked, and what floor of the Twin Towers they were on (or where in the Pentagon or on United flight 93), then you read a bit of their interview. This format means it takes a bit more time to read, but I soon got into the rhythm and realized I was seeing people repeated throughout the book so I didn't always need to read all their biographical information after a while.

The book is very well organized, following the chronology of the day, but within that it has place and theme. I cannot imagine how long it took the author to cull through the hours of oral history transcripts to put this book together. The images in the book are also powerful and round out a complete story for the reader.

I'll confess that the parts I found least interesting were the President Bush and Washington, DC bunker bits, but perhaps that's because reading of struggle and survival is tough to beat. While this book is full of tragedy and heartbreak (how could it not be), the thing that makes it readable is that the "characters" whose voices we're hearing all survive. I got attached to individual people (well done to the author for accomplishing that) and I'd stop reading, not wanting to find out they had died. Then I would remember that I am reading their words so they must have survived to be interviewed!

9/11 is vivid in my memory. I was in California so learned about it when we put on the news getting ready for work. My daughter was just 11 months old and I remember holding her, crying, watching the attacks on TV and looking out my bedroom window to see my neighbor in her bedroom doing the same thing. We locked eyes, then went back to watching the towers crumble. Teaching that day was tough as we helped our students process.

Challenges for which this counts: 
This book counts for the Popsugar challenge twice: it has maps and it is by a journalist


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