Review: The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff

I started reading this book a few months ago, and then decided I needed to wait until I was in the right frame of mind. This is a tough read that will take you right back to September 11, 2001. It’s a vast collection of eyewitness accounts of what people experienced that day in New York City, DC, and around the country.

Then I heard that the audiobook version had won the Audie award and had a full cast, and I decided audio would be a better way to process this daunting book. I think that was the right choice. The different voices made it feel even more real. There were days I listened to this on my walks, sobbing and thinking I must look ridiculous but also not caring. There were days I thought, I can’t hear any more. But I kept listening.

I wasn’t surprised that this was a tough, heartbreaking at times, read. On the positive side, this is a book told by the survivors. On the other hand, every one of those people was irrevocably changed by that day, and most of them lost friends, co-workers, and family.

I expected sad stories and I expected terror. I was surprised, however, by how much I learned about the political behind-the-scenes that day, and how little anyone knew at the time about what was going on. One of the first responders on that day comments that people watching their TVs at home knew way more than anyone actually “on the ground” and that includes the federal government. Our government that day was reacting to fragments of information and misinformation, all of it was colored by panic and confusion. I was struck by a comment by someone in the White House that everything they knew that morning came from CNN. It reminded me how very important our journalists are, and how sad it is that we’ve come to see them as politically biased rather than as credible sources of information.

The book opens up with a comment by the author that everyone has a story of where they were on 9/11, but most people just want to tell their own story, not listen to others. This book is about telling everyone’s story. (As I write this I really want to tell you my 9-11 story – so I totally get where Graff is coming from.) In telling everyone’s stories, Graff provides the most comprehensive look at 9/11 that I’m aware of. He explains that there is now a whole generation that doesn’t remember 9/11. Graff tells us up front that he won’t spend much time on the “why” of September 11, since the 9/11 Commission did that (though some time is spent describing Al Qaeda and what intelligence analysts knew that year). He also doesn’t spend time on the political decisions that followed. The focus is on that day.

As I think about it, there’s so much more to be told even without getting into politics, from the repair efforts (I saw the gaping hole in the Pentagon and I also saw how quickly it was rebuilt), to the long-term health impacts on first-responders, to the creation of each of the memorials. The book also doesn’t cover any of the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment that followed 9/11. I wish it did, since that’s an important though ugly part of the history. I expect Graff made a conscious decision to focus on the positive – this is a book about heroism, bravery, and sacrifice, and those stories are worth telling. I think people did amazing things that day, and I absolutely want to memorialize what they did.

In an interview following the audiobook, Graff explains that this book started out as a much shorter piece focusing on the President and Air Force One that day. There is quite a lot of time spent on that subject, which was pretty interesting because I didn’t know much about what the President did that day.

For most of us, 9/11 is a day our lives changed, because it changed the way we saw our country and the rest of the world. It’s a day the images on the news scarred us. It’s a day I learned to say “I love you” every time a loved one gets on a plane. It’s a day I learned that the city I call home is not invulnerable. It’s a day some of us first experienced real fear. A day we learned that the next attack may be something no one could possibly have imagined.

What I appreciated about this book is that it gave me a much better understanding of what happened that day, what many people went through, and how people felt that day. There’s a part of me that’s always felt our country overreacted in a lot of ways, and that the death count (think how many more people have died of COVID-19, for example) didn’t justify our country’s reaction to it. But maybe I’m wrong to think that way, since you just can’t compare what happened on this day to other horrific acts in other countries. I think that what Graff sets out to do is explore why 9/11 had such an impact on this country and on each of us.

Note: I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the 20 Books of Summer Challenge. This was a tremendous book and one I definitely recommend.

  5 comments for “Review: The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff

  1. June 11, 2020 at 7:25 am

    So good to hear your thoughts on this one. Beautifully said. I really want to read it but as you mention, it’s definitely one you need to be mentally braced for and I haven’t felt there yet. It sounds like it encompasses much more than I realized though, I didn’t know there was much perspective from government figures as well. Fantastic review!

  2. June 11, 2020 at 8:51 am

    Loved your take on this.
    I‘ve been in Munich, lecturing a course on Software Architecture for a couple of Sun Microsystems guys. Their office were located in one of the twin towers. Needless to say that the rest of the course went downhill.

  3. June 11, 2020 at 4:26 pm

    Oh, GOD, I cried listening to this too.

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