All We Have Left

23347746First Lines: Travis draws my face into his chest as the smoke engulfs us.

When I saw this book at a Barnes & Noble, I knew I had to read it.  I’m so thrilled that we’ve finally gotten to the point where people are starting to write 9/11 stories for a new generation.  My middle schoolers were all born after 2001, so they have no concept of how big of a deal this single day was.  When we read Code Orange (which is set in NYC, 2003), I have to actually teach them about 9/11.

I’m just going to copy the description from Goodreads for this one: Now:
Sixteen-year-old Jesse is used to living with the echoes of the past. Her older brother died in the September 11th attacks, and her dad has filled their home with anger and grief. When Jesse gets caught up with the wrong crowd, one momentary hate-fueled decision turns her life upside down. The only way to make amends is to face the past, starting Jesse on a journey that will reveal the truth about how her brother died.

Then:
In 2001, sixteen-year-old Alia is proud to be Muslim… it’s being a teenager that she finds difficult. After being grounded for a stupid mistake, Alia is determined to show her parents that that they must respect her choices. She’ll start by confronting her father at his office in downtown Manhattan, putting Alia in danger she never could have imagined. When the planes collide into the Twin Towers Alia is trapped inside one of the buildings. In the final hours she meets a boy who will change everything for her as the flames rage around them . . .

Interweaving stories past and present, full of heartbreak and hope, two girls come of age in an instant, learning that both hate and love have the power to reverberate into the future and beyond.

So as this says, the story alternates between Alia’s story in 2001 and Jesse’s story in 2016.  And for the most part, that works pretty well.  They have pretty parallel experiences that go well with this.  What I mean by that is they both experience the same emotions around the same time, so you don’t get all worked up for one and then mellow out for the other before flipping back.

Alia’s story felt hauntingly authentic.  I remember enough of 9/11 to remember some of the stories I heard from those early days.  Alia’s account shows the early calm, the rising panic, and the unending terror of realizing just how bad things are.  I can just picture the people who went through the exact same thing.  It’s scary.  And, with our hindsight, heartbreaking.  We know how bad it is; we know just how much worse it’s going to get.

Jesse’s story is just as compelling as Alia’s in its own way.  (I wasn’t expecting that.)  Jesse has lived most of her life hearing about the evil Muslims and how they’re all out to kill us, thanks to her father who can’t deal with the death of his eldest son.  When Jesse acts on that anger, she learns quickly the consequences of her actions and how all of us are just people trying to live our lives.  Just because we look the same or have the same religious beliefs as someone who has committed atrocities doesn’t mean we have the same radical notions.  It was really touching and a wonderful message to put out there.

This story was utterly beautiful…but I can’t give it 5 roses for one reason: I nearly didn’t get through the beginning.  The first few days that I was reading this, I just couldn’t get into it.  Both Alia and Jesse harbor a lot of anger and it underlines everything they do.  I have a hard time getting into stories that use anger that much that soon.  It gives me nothing to relate to because, quite frankly, I’m big on conflict avoidance.  If you work me into it slowly, like over the course of the story, I’m fine.  I see why the conflict exists.  But to tell me straight off that a character resents their parent for X, Y, or Z, I just can’t do it.  I almost quit this book until I finally got a hand-hold on it when the first plane hit.

But truly, once the story gets going, it is beautiful and a definite recommendation from me.  Very poignant.

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