The Only Plane In the Sky by Garrett M. Graff
Publication Date: September 10, 2019
I rarely review nonfiction because it can be subjective based on interests and honestly I do not usually have a ton to say, except, “I learned a lot” or “this was good”. But, I want to talk about The Only Plane in the Sky. This review will not be in the traditional Words About Words format because it is more of an exploration of ideas rather than what I liked and did not like about the novel because this novel made me think.
This novel is an oral history of the events of September 11, 2001 which focuses on the central theme of an individual’s memory of the day. The author states early on that when you talk about 9/11 with someone, they always want to tell you their story and where they were on that day. This novel explores just that. From the survivors who made it out of the tower, to students who were at school nearby and across the country, to President’s chief of staff, to families who lost loved ones, and more. This book tries to share their points of view and memories. Since this is an oral history, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND the audiobook. It is a full cast with 45 narrators and clips from actual speeches. It’s haunting and heartbreaking, but at its core powerful.
Please note that this review will be discussing the event of 9/11 and the events that follow. If you have any triggers related to this, please read with caution. Please note these triggers if you choose to pick up the book as well.
The thing about everyone having a story about 9/11 is that I don’t. I was six in September 2001 and did not see any of the footage on TV. I am not sure when I learned about it, but I was young enough when it happened that everything just felt like history, albeit modern history. It was not until I started studying political science and experiencing (from a distance) the horrors of gun violence that I started realizing what 9/11 was like for those that lived it. I saw an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington D.C. a few years ago that showed reporters running for their lives and yet still reporting and so much of what that day was liked clicked in my mind. If I had read a book like this earlier maybe I would have realized the fear and uncertainly of what this day was like. I only bring this up because the whole book focuses on people’s individual memories of the day.
This book hurts to listen to, but at the same time you will admire the people who became heroes on that day. People truly came together when the United States and New York were torn about. Some of the audio is really hard to listen to as they have some audio from the hijacked planes and some direct transcripts of some of the calls. It was so powerful, but also a part of me did not need to hear all of that. At times I felt like this was too personal for me, a person who does not know these people, to be listening to the trauma they all faced this day.
This book does an amazing job of making a historical day feel real even for those who did not live it. I would love to read (or listen to) oral histories of historical events or famous days in history that I do not know much about. Because I did know a fair amount about 9/11 before reading this.
What I love about the idea of oral histories is that everyone remembers things differently and how the same event can mean different things to everyone. I love the idea of this concept and see if with my friends and I who will each only remember part of a childhood memory or with my grandparents who will remember something from 50 years ago, completely differently. The only oral history book I had experience with was Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid which is a fictional oral history. I am even more impressed by TJR after listening to a read oral history because reading this felt the same as reading Daisy Jones. I mean except for the fact that the horrors I was listening to actually happened.
Overall, I recommend this novel, but I caution you to read it when you are in a good headspace and ready for something heavy and emotional.
Thanks for reading!