Why would a Canadian write about the 9/11 tragedy anyway? As Walters explains, the events had a profound effect on him that day and in the days, weeks, and months that followed. I can relate. I won't get into all the details about where I was when it happened (as I blogged about it before), but it did depress me a great deal. I started to obsess over news reports. I started to feel like an adolescent all over again, when I first started thinking about the world at large and growing ever more cynical. Thankfully Debbie helped me snap out of it and move forward. Walters, it seems, went into a similar funk and even stopped writing for a while. Fortunately he too was able to move on, eventually even revisiting the September 11th attacks with the young adult novel We All Fall Down and its follow-up United We Stand. I think that for many of us Canadians used to a pretty cushy way of life, it was a blow to our sense of security to have something so monumental, so horrific, happen right next door. That was something that happened over there, in parts of the world we barely knew about, to people we barely understood, in places we never visited. Not the U.S.. Whereas our elusive Canadian identity— especially, how we were different than the British and the Americans— was something we explored halfheartedly before, almost as a joke, it now became more urgent and significant.
But We All Fall Down is not really about the Canadian identity. The protagonist of the novel, Will, is an American teenager. However, I think many Canadian teens would find him to be a relatable character. He's athletic, he's smart with numbers. He thinks his father works too much, but otherwise he has it pretty good. Politics of our governments aside, Walters makes a pretty good case that our two countries are pretty similar when you get down to the individual level. Most of us are inherently good, decent people.
We All Fall Down begins on September 10, 2001. Walters uses this date wisely. It would be pointless to pretend that a reader would be startled by the events that are to unfold the next day, but the characters are, of course, unaware. Walters uses the first few chapters to build characters and what should be mundane only adds to the tension in the reader who knows what is going to happen to them. Will is going to spend the next day with his father who works in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Eric Walters' books are huge in schools. They are undeniably educational and it's no wonder that teachers and librarians love them. However, it's when he panders to this market that We All Fall Down... well, falls down. When Will and his father, for instance, are trying to escape down the stairwell, they stop to discuss why terrorists would target the U.S.. These discussions should come up in a classroom, but it feels forced into the plot. What is for the most part an intense book, suffers from these occasional "educational" moments that slow down the pace and destroy the realism. Will and his father would likely have such a conversation, just not now.
When Walters really hit his stride and let the action lead the way, I found the book to be quite and surprisingly emotional. I was brought back to that fateful day; I was remembering all that traumatic news footage, and even worse, I was now trapped inside one of the towers. I imagine that this would be almost unreadable for those whose loved ones perished in the collapse. There's one scene after the plane hits the North Tower, when people in the South Tower first get the news. They immediately downplay the reality, just as I did living all the way up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. We assumed it was a small aircraft, probably a two-seater of some sort. Tragic, but not world changing. That people even as close to the actual event could have had the same thoughts, that we all couldn't even fathom what had really happened, is now even more shocking in hindsight. Especially in the information age, we have all become hypochondriacs, thinking our headaches are tumors and Googling just to negate or confirm our fears. It shows the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks that many of us jumped, for once, to the better conclusions first. It was a small plane, it was an accident. I wonder if we'll ever have that innocence again.