A personal confession: I am a binge reader. Recently it was a steady diet of historical novels set in Europe during WW2, until I moved on to a stretch of nonfiction books. Yes, I have been reading for real, marveling again and again that real people living real events is just as compelling as imaginary characters in dreamed-up plots.
Glowing reviews from friends for the Tony-nominated musical Come from Away led me to The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland. Initially, I slogged a bit through journalist Jim DeFede’s obligatory background describing the proud, strong-willed Newfies who live in the small town with the big airport no longer militarily-strategic.
Then President Bush closed American airspace when the U.S. came under attack. The 10,000 residents of the Canadian town provided five days of hospitality, friendship, and security to the 7,000 passengers aboard the 38 planes forced to land there. The story is an amazing one – actually the hundreds of stories that occurred are amazing.
The mere logistics of arranging shelter boggle the mind: every school, every hall, every center was soon outfitted with necessities donated by, well, everyone. Striking school bus drivers left picket lines to transport passengers from their planes to the make-shift lodgings. City officials officiated, service organizations served, and businesses provided – often with no charge. Families emptied their linen closets of towels and bedding to ensure the comfort of the weary, wary visitors – and invited them home temporarily for real showers in real bathrooms.
What a medley of people came to town that day: U.S. citizens returning home, international visitors arriving for vacation or business – and 38 sets of crew members. There was the couple trying to reach their Dallas home with their newly-adopted Russian baby. A nice young man and a nice young woman fell in love, while two gals slept outside in a Walmart tent. The head of Hugo Boss accepted only his requested item: underwear from his designer line – while politely rejecting accompanying gifts of gourmet delicacies. A computer executive had to convince a principal to accept new computers for her school, and a Dutch artist left a masterpiece on a classroom chalkboard. A rabbi provided an audience for a man raised in the Catholic Church who needed to proclaim aloud his Jewish birthright.
And the parents of a NYC firefighter kept vigil hour-after-hour, awaiting word of his fate.
I cried at the end, as did many of the Newfies and the Plane People. A beautiful inconvenience had allowed them to establish a bond that, although unsustainable, would never be forgotten – that day the world came to town.
Another personal confession, qualified: Even as I write about nonfiction today, I could have sworn that Carla Buckley’s dystopian novel, The Things That Keep Us Here, was the true-life account of a worldwide pandemic. The setting was Columbus with occasional references to OSU. In fact, I felt I was reading the book version of a documentary I had already seen on TV – complete with school closings, masks, updates from doctors and scientists, grocery store shortages, news bulletins from around the globe. So deep into the plot despite the uber-hot temperatures of a couple weeks ago, I was stunned to see no blizzard raging when I glanced out my window!
How could I have been so thoroughly convinced of the veracity of the author’s story – I was totally aware the novel was published in 2010, and my sister had apprised me of that detail when she recommended the book. I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this fictional story because it focused on how unfolding events affected a very relatable family of four living typical suburban lives.
Particularly disturbing was one chilling aspect of this novel. The pandemic it depicted proceeded much further than the one we just experienced. I shuddered as residents disappeared without explanation – until trucks arrived for body collection. Neighbors refused to answer their doors, fearing contagion and contamination. Failing public services were unable to provide heat, water, phone service, while offering only limited medical assistance. Supermarkets and gas stations stood abandoned; looters and carjackers ran rampant.
I realized that fortunately in 2020 and 2021 we dodged a bullet – sort of. And I remain conflicted that I thought I was reading for real even when I knew I was not!
An uplifting nonfiction book recently came to my attention. Although The Poppy Lady by Barbara Elizabeth Walsh is meant for children, with lovely illustrations by Layne Johnson, it is a story also meaningful for and largely unknown by most adults. A teacher from Georgia during WW1, Moina Belle Michael, worked tirelessly to support the soldiers serving in the Great War. Inspired by John McCrae’s poem: “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row / That mark our place,” Moina’s most significant endeavor of many was to establish the poppy as a national symbol for all veterans. She persistently spread the word, striving to include disabled veterans in the actual creation of the crepe paper flowers that citizens funded with their donations.
Along with its additional enlightening historical material, this is a book to be shared in families and in classrooms. And it is beautifully imbued with Moina’s life-long motto: “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might.”
Hey, I hope everyone will at least occasionally read for real, to experience intriguing people living remarkable lives!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.