Monday, October 12, 2009

Love is the Higher Law

I put Love is the Higher Law on hold at the library because I love David Levithan. I didn’t know what it was about, just knew that I’ve enjoyed all of this guy’s books, so of course I want to see what he’s giving us next. The book arrived at my library on September 10, and I saw from the cover that it was a novel about September 11, 2001. Three teenagers in New York City, their experiences on that day and in the following months and years. Where they were and what they did. How everything changed that day, and kept changing in the days following. Connections that may not have happened otherwise. It’s a story of the power of love—love between friends, love we have for places, moments of grace, and hope for our best selves.

Yes, I was totally absorbed in the book, and the voices of Jasper, Peter, and Claire. Told in alternating chapters from each of their points of view, it was easy for me to keep track of who was narrating, I think Levithan did a good job at giving each of them a distinct voice. Jasper slept through the morning of 9/11, enjoying his freedom before returning to college while his parents are in Korea visiting his grandmother. He awakes to a frantic phone call from his mother and then wanders the streets of Brooklyn, picking up pieces of paper that he realizes are files from the Trade Center that have blown over the river in the explosions. Peter is waiting for Tower Records to open to buy the new Bob Dylan CD. In an instant, the music that he defines his life by is gone—he can’t imagine wanting to hear a song that would later make him remember this day. Claire is at school, indulging in worry about her mother, when something she’d never even thought to worry about comes to pass. She immediately thinks of her 2nd grader brother, and goes to his classroom to help keep the kids calm and to help try to make order in the chaos as the entire school is moved to a safer location. Claire knows Peter from school. Peter and Jasper had met at a recent party, and made a date to go out this evening. Their lives intersect in the days and weeks following 9/11, and they ultimately help each other start to deal with something that, at the core, each one of them experiences uniquely and alone.
I wasn’t in NYC during 9/11. David Levithan was. From what I’ve heard, he has captured the moods of the city during this time wonderfully. (I would love hear what someone who was there thinks of this book). Claire can’t sleep, gathers with other New Yorkers at memorials and tries to process what is fundamentally not understandable. She throws herself into volunteering. After being rejected as a blood donor because he’s gay, Jasper withdraws. He tries to keep his date with Peter a few days later, but neither of them quite know how to act, and their time together ends awkwardly and uncertainly. Peter returns to music, and finds new meanings in songs and lyrics, in the unique energy that people gathering for a live music performance can have. They connect and reconnect with one another. Claire in particular tries to keep believing that something good will have to last from the way people were with one another—kinder, more patient, more understanding—in the days following 9/11. She says to Japser "I think that if you were somehow able to measure the weight of human kindness, it would have weighed more on 9/11 than it ever had. On 9/11, all the hatred and murder could not compare with the weight of love, of bravery, of caring. I think we saw the way humanity works on that day, and while some of it was horrifying, so much of it was good." (p. 106). Jasper wants to believe her. He really wants to.

Levithan writes in a note at the end of the book that, while he wrote things down as they were happening on 9/11, he never thought he’d write a novel about it, but he realized he wanted to capture the immediacy of that time as well as he could. He wanted readers who were very young at this period in history, or who weren’t even born yet, to know what it was like. That there was terror and fear and panic, but also that there were people giving away shoes and bottled water. That 9/11 wasn’t just a day that tore people apart, it had the possibility of bringing people together and bringing out humanity's better selves.

Also posted at Dwelling in Possibility.

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