Love is the Higher Law

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

Today is the 11th anniversary of September 11. Is there a better word than anniversary to mark tragic events?  Anniversary seems too upbeat. This Patriot Day I am thinking of all of those affected by the tragedy.

I don’t know how many fictional accounts have been written about the terrorist attacks or the immediate aftermath.  Obviously, the most famous is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which I read years ago and don’t have any particularly strong feelings about.

Love is the Higher Law is David Levithan’s attempt to capture the the experience.  Using three different characters who all react to the attacks differently, Levithan traces their lives from the morning of the attack to nearly two years later.  Each section of the book is incrementally further from 9/11 and shows how the characters are processing the tragedy.  This is not a book about action or plot.  It is a small book of feelings, emotions, reactions and the many different ways that people grieve.  Despite hints of a possible romance early on, there is no real romantic plot.  In fact, our three characters are not intricately linked until far later in book.

Levithan’s account was incredibly hard to read in the beginning.  I don’t know if I was being an oversensitive ninny, but I cried through the first few chapters, so strongly did Levithan evoke the emotions of the day.  Throughout the book, he not only did an excellent job of capturing the mood, but in recording the small details that caused memories to flood back to me: the initial inability to reach anyone via phone (none of the lines were working), how papers from the towers turned up all over New York, the incredible disconcerting silence of having empty airspace, the disgusting unforgivable impulse of tourists to photograph the fallen towers, the haunting ghostlike beauty of the spotlights that lit where the towers had stood.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was not in New York for the September 11th attacks, so I cannot ever know what it was to have been a New Yorker on that day. Maybe my outsider’s sense that Levithan’s rendition rings true will not carry over for those who experienced it first hand.  I’m also incredibly curious about what younger readers make of this.  I was a student teacher at the time of the attacks, although I did not work that day.   The first grade students I taught are now seniors in high school and I cannot say how much they or their fellow teens recall about September 11th.  I would be very interested to know if they feel the power in this book or if it will really only speak to those who can remember.

My only completely self-centered complaint about the book is that some of the characters end up in Boston for the first anniversary.  They have a real sense that Boston does not remember.  I don’t know.  I was there.  There were moments of silence and people wore black. In my second grade classroom during quiet time children journaled about bad men and drew little planes crashing into buildings.  One girl with tear-filled eyes presented me a poster of the towers where her aunt had died.  Two planes filled largely with Boston residents and manned by Boston-based flight crews crashed that day.  It’s entirely possible that my memories are skewed by my context – a teacher at a school, but I just think the the idea that the rest of the world has moved on would have been more marked in a more removed city.

Sex, Nudity, Dating – Jasper sits around in his boxers. Blood donation questionnaires contain questions about AIDS and about homosexual sex, which leads to a discussion about heterosexual sex as well. Jasper and Peter talk about how the news predicts that 9 months after September 11 there will be lots of babies.  Two boys kiss.  They sleep in the same bed.  Two boys and a girl share a bed completely platonically.
Profanity– “shit,” “God,” “fuck,” “fucking,” “Jesus,” “hellish,” “ass,” “asshole,” “bitch,” “fag,” “Hells yeah,” “shitheap,”
Death, Violence and Gore – The book is about September 11th.  The twin towers fall. People jump to their deaths.  Initial casualty reports are incredibly high 25,000  or 10,000.  A plane hits the pentagon.  A girl at Claire’s school’s father has died.  Some posters threaten that we will find and kill terrorists.  Workers must sift through the debris. Jasper points out that we will likely bomb Afghanistan.  We start a war with Iraq.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Jasper mentions being drunk.  A party someone gets a drink and afterwards glasses and bottles are cleaned up.  Jasper and Peter drink beer. At a bar a random guy is high. A girl was “drunk off her ass” at a party. Jasper jokes that his grandmother is on uppers.
Frightening or Intense Things –  The whole book is pretty intense because it covers how different people react in the wake of 9/11.  In the days that followed, many people were displaced from their homes, not knowing what awaited them.  But the truly heartbreaking part is how many missing posters there were.

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