If you are one of those people who rolls your eyes upon hearing ultra-sunny bromides like “There are no such things as strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet,” then The Day the World Came to Town probably is not the book for you. For if there was ever a book that proved the veracity of such statements, it is certainly Jim DeFede’s Christopher Award-winning account of the 6,595 refugees from the sky stranded in Gander, Newfoundland on 11 September 2001.
The Day the World Came to Town is a heartfelt account of humanity at its finest during its darkest hours. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks at the World Trade Center, 38 jetliners en route to the United States were re-directed to Gander, a place once dubbed “the biggest gas station in the world.” What occurred over the succeeding four days was an outpouring of what could be termed hospitality, although that word is barely adequate to cover the actions of Gander’s citizens.
DeFede’s rose-hued and sometimes cliché-riddled writing cloaks a complex, interwoven mass of stories and characters presented to prove that out of great tragedy can come great compassion. One can easily forgive DeFede’s feel-good perspective, however, as ultimately, he reveals that there are still people who unselfishly offer help, comfort and hope to those in need simply because they can.
DeFede starts the book by providing an account of Gander’s history in order to contextualize the story to be told. Gander is a hard-working, fun-loving community composed of friendly and generous people who meet at the local Tim Horton’s or bar for a drink and an exchange of local news and gossip. It is a place where everyone is greeted with a smile and a kind word, stranger and friend alike. In short, it is the prototypical small town one sees in movies or, ironically enough, reads about in books.
But when Gander became the recipient of unexpected quests on that most tragic day, its residents immediately rallied with a swiftness and friendliness that even movies and books cannot accurately replicate. As DeFede consistently demonstrates, the town was a place where no call for assistance went unheard, and no person struggled alone.
Schools and halls quickly became emergency shelters. Residents invited people into their homes for showers, beds and meals. People stripped their houses bare of sheets and towels, and offered the use of their vehicles. Pharmacists filled prescriptions from all over the word at no cost. Local businesses emptied their shelves of food, clothing, toys and toiletries. One local business, Canadian Tire, was given instructions by its head office to provide whatever was required at no expense. At times, this even meant patronizing the store’s competitors in order to provide the items requested.
DeFede fluidly relays the astonishment and shock that the passengers felt as a result of the efforts to ensure their well-being and safe-keeping. He does this so well that it is difficult to not experience those exact same emotions when reading of the passengers’ first impressions of Gander.
These first moments of the crisis provide the stage upon which DeFede deftly weaves together the individual stories of the caregivers and the passengers. There are Bonnie Harris and Vi Tucker, who cared for the animals on the flights, and who provided a mascot for airport staff in Ralph, a 10-week old cocker spaniel found on one of the planes. And Roxanne and Clarke Loper and Beth and Billy Wakefield, two families returning from Kazakhstan with their newly adopted daughters, anxious to return home after an already highly emotional journey.
The emotional impact of these and other stories are undeniable. It is difficult to not feel the anxiety of Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke, parents awaiting word about their son, a New York City firefighter. Or the hope and commitment expressed by Beulah Cooper, a local “Newfie,” who made it her mission to comfort the O’Rourkes in any way possible.
But for every moment that brings an inkling of a tear, there is another that brings a smile. DeFede’s account of Hugo Boss chairman Werner Baldessarini’s trip to Wal-Mart for new underwear is certainly worthy of a chuckle or two. As are the adventures of a few lucky passengers who were made honorary Newfoundlanders through their participation in a traditional ceremony that involves drinking locally brewed liquor called Screech and kissing a codfish.
These are just some of the individuals and stories that will stay long after the book slowly recedes to the back of the shelf. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that DeFede, a columnist for The Miami Herald, never loses sight of the human elements of the story. He utilizes his award-winning journalistic skills to great effect in his first book, an achievement not to be underestimated given the logistics of trying to make a coherent story out of such an intricate web of people and circumstances.
For sure, DeFede’s writing is a little blurred around the edges, a little worn in the creases. He does not attempt to break any new ground in narrative style or structure. But this is to be expected. The story does not need tricks or clever devices to get the point across. DeFede wanted to provide an honest account of a previously unrecounted story that most people never knew existed. He achieves his goal with great success.
It’s difficult to find fault with a book so earnestly dedicated to showing us that compassion and generosity are not just myths from days past, and neither is the kind of modesty demonstrated by the citizens of Gander, who never wanted nor expected nor asked for any recognition or accolades. Instead, they set a standard to which the rest of us should aspire to reach.