“This is our JFK moment, you know? It’s like how everybody who was around in the ’60s can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that Kennedy was shot. This is our version of that.”
This quote from the award-winning 96 Hours (Bywater Books) by Georgia Beers really, really resonated with me. They are so accurate. I do remember, with amazing precision, exactly where I was when I heard about the attack. And I remember the very first thing I did after hearing about them. And I remember every moment of the that horrible Tuesday – watching, stunned, as the events unfolded in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania. And I remember the rest of that week – glued to the TV hoping against hope that this was all a fake. And I remember the rest of that semester – guiding my students through the events and their aftermath.
Even in tiny Mount Pleasant, Michigan, we were affected. People from every state in the nation were affected. The world gathered around us. Roy expressed the sentiment clearly as he was driving folks to the Wal-mart: “Hey, we’re all Americans right now, hon” (pg. 40).
In 96 Hours, Beers draws her readers back to a time in our history that is fraught with intense pain and engulfing rage. But she does so by leading us with a gentle hand – helping us to work through the emotions that are still present in our minds and hearts. She does so by giving us a story of the generosity of the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, of their open arms and open hearts. She gives us a story of change. She gives us a story of hope. She gives us a story of love.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried during many parts of this novel. No, not ashamed at all. It’s a testament to Beers’ talent as a writer that her words tapped into the part of me that still feels the pain and rage. That part of me is buried deep, but she found her way there by making her characters incredibly real. I could relate to them. These characters weren’t at Ground Zero; they were not in the middle of the chaos. They were outside of New York City – forced to be somewhere else. Waiting for any bit of new information. Moving in a haze of disbelief and confusion and pain and anger and fear. They were very much like me.
Even the people of Gander were familiar – they were the people I wanted to to be like. I’ve always thought – hoped – that I would behave as they behaved in a crisis situation. Heck, in any situation. But even then, I’m right there with the passengers from all of those stranded flights, marveling at the goodness of these people. I want to be like that, but I can’t really believe that there are people like that. Beers shows both sides of that particular coin so wonderfully.
Erica Ryan and Abby Hayes are as opposite as opposite can be – these are not women who are magically drawn to each other. But the events of 9/11 bring them and others together for 4 days. Over this very short period of time, we see these characters develop as their surroundings and situation burrow deep within them. They ride a roller coaster of emotions and, slowly, Erica and Abby begin moving toward the center – toward each other. Beers allows us into the thoughts and feelings of each woman without bogging us down with so many details that we get lost in the minutiae.
What I really loved is that Beers did not neglect her secondary characters. The other passengers, the people of Gander – they are all three-dimensional and real. We get to experience their grief and bewilderment as well. But, at the same time, they do not overpower the story and become the main focus. It’s a delicate balancing act that Beers performs beautifully.
In the end, I was left not with a feeling of despair and sadness. Yes, I still remember the events and the horrific emotions that they evoked. I’ll never forget nor will I ever stop experiencing those emotions. Instead, Beers encourages me to believe that there is hope and that love and kindness can make a difference. Erica says it best, “If not for the most evil, despicable people in the world, I would never have met some of the most generous and loving people in the world.” (pg. 104)
If you haven’t read this novel yet, I think you should…very soon.