Contemporary 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.