Category Archives: Non-Fiction

The Day the World Came to Town | 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland

148775Contemporary histories have distinct advantages: first hand accounts, plentiful documentation, and photo records. The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede has the dubious advantage of being an account of one of the defining moments in American history, and one of the most documented. But contemporary reports also have drawbacks, and I observed a few in this highly readable book.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland tells the story of the dozens of airplanes that were stranded in Gander, Newfoundland after the United States government closed all airspace in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The town of Gander, and other neighboring towns, generously and without reservation, took in the stranded airline passengers, feeding them, clothing them, bringing them into their homes and welcoming them into their community. This account is an affirmation of the people of Gander and the Newfoundland spirit.

Onto the advantages of a contemporary history.

Author Jim DeFede was able to interview 180 eyewitnesses to the events in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 and the days following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon. He traveled to Gander, less than a year after the events, and was able to observe where events took place in addition to interviewing the residents. In fact, DeFede mentions in the introduction to this book that he was given free access to the town, and was welcomed and helped by many residents of Gander.

Because DeFede had such extensive access given to him, within a year after September 11, 2001, The Day the World Came to Town has an immediacy and freshness that is very appealing. The stories of passengers bonding with Gander residents and making strong connections and friendships are marvelous to read. While reading these stories, I really felt that most people, when given the chance, are generous with their worldly goods and with themselves. And that’s a good feeling.

And the drawbacks of contemporary histories.

Hindsight has some advantages, and when it comes to highly documented public tragedies that spur Congressional investigations, the advantage of hindsight is even more apparent. This account was written before the 9/11 report was published, before the US invaded Iraq, and before the rubble was entirely cleared from Ground Zero. Since The Day the World Came to Town was published, there have been many accounts written, many analyses made, and many feature magazine articles written (including some about Gander, Newfoundland). Which makes some of the political analysis in this book seem naive and incomplete.

Luckily, political points and analysis are not the focus of this book. It’s the people. The good hearted, generous people of Newfoundland who opened their doors and hearts to the thousands of airline travelers that were stranded on their doorstep on September 11, 2001. Let me just state for the record, if I am ever stranded or abandoned, I hope it is in a place just halfway as kind as Gander. I’d be satisfied.

The Day the World Came to Town is a fresh account of the airline passengers stranded by the events of 9/11, but lacking the broader perspective of history.  The book is stronger in the beginning, as the passengers are overwhelmed by the generosity of Gander, but loses its focus and becomes simply a record of anecdotes in the last few chapters. Highly readable, and life affirming.




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Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson

18404319Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson recounts the history of the Tomlinson families of Tomlinson Hill, Texas – one a privileged white slave holding family, and the other family, the slaves that took the Tomlinson name. Tomlinson begins the book with the migration of the white Tomlinsons from Alabama to Falls County, Texas with their slaves walking the distance as the masters rode.

This book was tough going for me at the beginning – so many battles, so many acreages, so many names to process and keep straight.

I’m glad I stuck with Tomlinson Hill past the difficult battle passages. The parallel history of the two Tomlinson families is a compelling story of race, privilege, and bloody Texan history. Much of this history is painfully sad and grim, particularly the determined, evil way the whites were able to entrap the freed slaves into the virtual slavery of the sharecropping system. The North may have won the war, and passed the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Southern white landowners controlled the ballot boxes and ruled by intimidation and terror.

The final chapters detailing the author’s own experiences and LaDainian and LaVar Tomlinson’s experiences are superb. It took the black Tomlinson family 4 generations to get out of the racist manual labor system of Texas. Their experience was reflective of the African American experience in rural Texas. As white landowners mechanized farming, the former sharecroppers and farm workers were hard pressed to find work, and the “separate but equal” education system kept them in their place. Their white counterparts – even the relatively unsuccessful and uneducated – never faced the brutal poverty the black Tomlinsons did, even after declaring bankruptcy.

This book is an indictment of Texan culture, which unbelievably, never elected an African American to statewide office until 1990. 1990! Another fact that astounded me was the “rebranding” of Texas as a western state. My impressions of Texas as a cowboy Western state are the product of a conscious rebranding effort to avoid discussing the shameful slave holding past. Tomlinson dispels many of the myths we were fed as school children regarding the south. “They didn’t know better” and “they didn’t understand what they were doing” get quickly debunked with editorials published in Texas newspaper before the  Civil War.

The author, Chris Tomlinson, discusses his experiences as a child with government ordered desegregation of the school system. I found these chapters fascinating, as I attended schools in Wilmington, Delaware that were also ordered to desegregate by the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. I saw so many of my peers packed off to private and parochial schools, compounding the desegregation issue and preventing meaningful integration with white flight and fears of the “not like me.”

My experiences were much the same as Tomlinson’s. Yes, there was a lot of upheaval in the local schools. Yes, there were different standards in different schools that compounded problems. But, there was sincere reaching out and healthy interaction that outweighed so much of the negative. My teacher that year was Ed Sherrill, an educator in the Wilmington public school system, and he was the first African American teacher I had ever had. He was tall, with a booming voice, was my homeroom teacher, taught social studies, and I loved him. Meaningful integration of our schools is the only way we are going to succeed as a society.

I do have a warning: the chapters dealing with the Ku Klux Klan are difficult.

I would recommend this quite scholarly work to readers interested in American history, particularly the history of racism in America. The history of the Tomlinson family is our American history, complete with triumphs and failure, kindnesses and injuries.

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