Archive for the ‘Jim Defede’ Category

On September 11, 2001, more than 30 planes descended on Gander, Newfoundland when American airspace was closed in the wake of the attacks.  All across Canada, airports were being overwhelmed by unscheduled landings but nowhere were the arrivals more extreme than Gander, where the town’s population grew from a modest 10,000 to almost 17,000 overnight and Newfoundlanders, both from Gander and the surrounding towns and villages, put their lives on hold to care for and entertain the unexpected arrivals.  In the coming days and weeks, the story of Gander and the stranded travelers was featured prominently by both the Canadian and American media: at a time when everyone was shocked and terrified, it was a simple, heart-warming story of strangers reaching out to help those in need.

The Day the World Came to Town by Jim Defede was published in 2002 and was, to my memory, one of the first books published concerning the events of 9/11.  It is certainly the first book I have read about that day and, even all these years later, even the smallest details can make me cry, even as I was frustrated by the writing itself.  It’s far too sentimental for my tastes and the passengers that Defede chooses to focus on – including, among others, a Texan couple returning with their newly adopted Kazakh daughter, a Rabbi, and former Hugo Boss chairman Werner Baldessarini – are handled with indulgently dramatic descriptions, sensationalizing their thoughts during their time in Gander.  A less personal, more objective approach would have been, to this reader, far more powerful and would have felt less exploitative.  The subject matter was always going to be upsetting and it was the simplest details that affected me most, rather than the ones Defede spent the most time illustrating.

Despite my dislike for the style, you can’t help but appreciate the story.  The little anecdotes of how the locals welcomed the newcomers are touching.  They opened their schools, churches and halls to house them, brought them into their own homes to shower, drove them wherever they needed to go, and donated all they could – Canadian Tire gave its regional heads carte blanche to donate any stock that the visitors might need and, when that wasn’t enough, they used funds from their charitable division to purchase the surplus items from rival Wal-Mart.  The visitors were even Screeched-In – you can’t be more welcomed than that.  People were doing this all over the country but, because Gander is so small and because it’s oversized airport took so many planes that day, it acts as an extreme microcosm and, in this writer’s hands, an indulgently folksy example of the kindness of strangers.

As a Canadian reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh at Defede’s introduction to Newfoundland, including how to pronounce it (do people really try saying “New Finland”?).  The mnemonic device he’s given is “Understand Newfoundland”, which is one I’ve never heard before but is actually quite good.  However, even sharing that pearl of wisdom with the reading public will not allow me to forgive him for having referred to Tim Horton’s, that most iconic symbol of Canadian life, as “the Canadian equivalent of Starbucks” (p.15).  I laughed out loud at that, and this is a book where you’re not really meant to be laughing.  Readers, let me assure you that Timmies (as it is affectionately known) is NOT the Canadian Starbucks.  In fact, we have Starbucks up here in the frozen North.  Visit Vancouver and you will actually see two Starbucks on opposite street corners along Robson.  But however much we may like the occasional Starbucks coffee (and I use ‘we’ in the general sense, since I don’t drink coffee), we love Tim Horton’s in a way that Americans, not even Seattleites, love Starbucks.  It is the place where retirees seem to always gather to complain about their grandchildren and the government, where the hockey moms and dads can be found at the drive through on the way to practice, and where the businessmen and women are willing to stand in line at six in the morning to get their daily double-double.  Timmies, my friends, is the great equalizer in Canadian society.  Also, it’s cheap, as are most Canadians.  End of rant.

I suppose I should not then be shocked that Defede describes the charmingly odd and rather camp “Due South” as “dismal” (p. 200), but I was still somewhat upset.  Particularly after “Susannah of the Mounties”, an abysmal 1939 Shirley Temple movie, was described in glowing terms.  Really?  A tap-dancing child is preferred to a delightfully tongue-in-cheek portrayal of an idealised Mountie banished to the consulate in Chicago?  Also, there is a pet wolf named Diefenbaker – what more could one want from a television program?  I suppose, after reading this book, that I should be shocked that the author prefers the overtly sentimental to the quietly amusing, but I’m still rather disappointed.

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