For my generation, asking this question is a lot like asking a Baby Boomer, Where were you when JFK was shot? It’s the most important event that we have lived through, the tragedy that we share, the defining historical event of our time. Many of us are not New Yorkers and did not directly experience the collapse of the Twin Towers; nor did were we directly in the middle of the destruction and chaos. But as Americans, we were all shaken to the core when the World Trade Center was hit that day. We all felt more vulnerable; we all felt both more isolated and more connected to each other. We search for a way to understand what happened on September 11 – by trying to find a personal connection to the event, however tenuous. I remember that I was in my Psychology 101 class; 9/11 occurred within the first few weeks of my freshman year of college. I can recount for you the details of who I was sitting with in class and what we did afterward. I try to build a connection to a city that I had never visited, to people that I had never met.
It has been almost ten years since September 11, 2001, and many who were children at the time are now at an age where they can begin to wrestle with what this event has meant for our country and our national identity. They have grown up with the uncertainty and fear that began with the WTC terrorist attacks; they have only known a “post-9/11” world but probably not understood what that meant. I was eighteen when the Towers fell – and even so, I don’t think I truly understand all the implications of 9/11. Part of my own inability to comprehend has to do with the fact that I was unaware of the world around me before that time and just beginning to realize the enormity of the global community when September 11th shattered my sense of safety; 9/11 has been an integral part of my own personal awakening. But those who were children on September 11, 2001 are now learning to examine the larger world – and they must decide how to respond. In order to do that, they need to understand not just the bare facts of 9/11, but the experience of that day and the months that followed. How each American felt devastated in their own way, how each of us tried to understand.
That is why David Levithan’s book Love is the Higher Law is so significant and so moving. In the acknowledgements, Levithan writes that this project was “fueled by the fact that there haven’t been as many novels about this time as I’d imagined there would be, and also by the fact that, as time goes on, readers (especially younger ones) will have less and less firsthand experience of what it was like to be in New York in those hours and days and months [following the attack].” It was important to the author to communicate the truth of what it was like to experience this singular tragedy because it taught us so much about ourselves and about human nature in general. We learned about both love and hate in the fall of 2001, all the complexities of human emotion and the vivid experience of grief in great detail.
One of the striking things about Love is the Higher Law are the details – the little things that the characters focus on, the little things that each of us tries to grasp in a moment of great tragedy. Levithan describes the sheets of paper – computer print outs of office memos and stock reports – that flew across the Hudson River and littered the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. He describes the songs that were playing on the radio at the moment that a character found out that the Towers had been hit, the pictures that the children were coloring in a nearby elementary school, the names of the national news reporters who stayed up for forty-eight hours to continue covering the situation and “try… to explain this unexplainable thing.” The reality of tragedy and grief is that we experience it in snapshots, in images, in tiny ways that drive home the loss – and Levithan evokes those images with beautiful, haunting descriptions.
Those details are not enough, though, to fully express the host of confusing, conflicting emotions that September 11th produced within many Americans, but Levithan’s novel communicates the complexity of those feelings extremely well through the juxtaposition of three very different characters. Claire, Peter and Jasper are mere acquaintances before the terrorist attacks and each of the characters recounts their own separate, isolating experience of 9/11 at the beginning of the novel. Then the narrative weaves between their perspectives and emotions during the following months, witnessing the growth of their relationships.
What is so interesting about these relationships, though, is that they are not based on any kind of obvious similarity, but on need. It is striking how Levithan explores the 9/11 experience simultaneously through the extremely emotive Claire and Peter, while also delving into the range of human emotion from the perspective of Jasper, who goes emotionally numb after the terrorist attacks. Though the characters sometimes struggle to understand each other, their need continues to draw them to each other, illustrating the way that Americans came together following 9/11. Though they each find very different ways of expressing and coping with their reactions to the tragedy, together these three characters are able to articulate the mood of the nation – the haunted, uncertain but determined atmosphere that hovered over us for a long time and still lingers. There are many passages that moved me; many passages that I would like to quote in this review. But I think that instead of doing that, I will simply recommend that you go and discover these passages for yourself. This is a book that manages to express such profound truths and emotions in such simple terms that everyone should make some time to check it out.
A special thanks to Khy @ Frenetic Reader for recommending this book.