On this year's list of Illinois Bluestem Award nominated books (a children's choice award for students in grades 3 through 5), we have 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. I challenge anyone to finish reading this book and remain dry-eyed.
In 2002, a ceremony takes place in an obscure village in Kenya. A Maasai tribe surrounds an American diplomat. He is there to accept a gift for the American people. Just nine months have passed since the September 11 attacks, and emotions are still raw. Tears flow as these legendary warriors offer their gift to a grieving people in a distant land. Many who hear of this gift are moved by its eloquence, but for Americans, the gesture has even deeper meaning. For a grief-stricken nation, the gift of fourteen cows emerges from the dust and darkness as a beacon of friendship, compassion and hope.
A decade after the tragedies of September 11th, we're still waiting for the novel that truly holds the mirror to that moment and its aftermath and opens a window to how our society has been transformed. It's not for lack of trying on the part of writers as varied as John Updike (Terrorist), Don DeLillo (Falling Man), Claire Messud (The Emperor's Children), Jay McInerney (The Good Life) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). However, as engaging and insightful as some of these novels are, they seem to just miss the mark. As an editor for the Time Book Review noted a couple of years ago, we are still searching for "the bracing, wide-screen, many-angled novel that will leave a larger, more definitive intellectual and moral footprint on the new age of terror.” Where is Tom Wolfe when you need him?!?!?!? Given that Wolfe has stated that his goal in writing fiction is to document contemporary society in the tradition of John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens and Emile Zola, I would say that he's our best chance for the definitive 9/11 novel. Tom, if you are out there, (although I know you don't approve of blogs), please answer the call!
On the other hand, we are blessed with many exceptional nonfiction efforts that capture our struggles to understand the reality of the world that came crashing down on us that September morning. The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright, examines the origins of Al-Qaeda, the background of earlier terrorist attacks outside and inside the U.S. and subsequent investigations, and the events leading up to 9/11. Wright focuses on the people: what they were like, why they did what they did, and how they interacted. The writing is gripping; the narrative sweeping. The Pulitzer Prize was well-deserved. The Forever War, by New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins, tackles the chain of events that began with the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, continued through the terrorists acts leading up to 9/11, and culminated in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Filkins's narrative is intense, vivid and gut-wrenching. And then, of course, there is The 9/11 Commission Report. From its first sentence recalling that beautiful, cloudless morning, it grabs the reader by the throat and never lets go.
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