All We Have Left, by Wendy Mills (2016)
Opening line: “Travis draws my face into his chest as the smoke engulfs us.”
That opener gives you an idea of the intensity of this book. Wooo boy.
The smoke that main character Alia is referring to is the smoke from the burning floors above her and near-stranger Travis where a Boeing 767 crashed into 1 World Trade Center. The date, of course, is September 11th, 2001, and America as Alia knows it, is about to change. She was never meant to be at the WTC, but after a terrible fight with her mother, Alia’s only chance at getting into an incredible summer art program to develop her passion for drawing (specifically, drawing her kickass Muslim girl superhero comics), is to skip first period and head to visit her dad at work to convince him to sign the permission form. Only, when she gets there, her Ayah isn’t at his desk, and on her way back down, there’s an ominous explosion, and the elevator suddenly stops working.
Meanwhile, we also hear the story of Jesse, living fifteen years later. Jesse’s just trying to survive high school with her three best friends, while being as invisible as possible at home where her parents have not moved on from her brother’s death on that fateful September day when Jesse was just a baby. Jesse’s father, in particular, has spiraled into a raging alcoholic, angry at the world — and particularly all the Muslims in said world, who are responsible for his son’s death (in his eyes). But things start to shift for Jesse when cool, edgy Nick starts to take notice of her and invites her into a dark web of tagging buildings, something that starts as an adrenaline rush, but culminates into hateful graffiti.
This novel will keep readers at the edge of their seats, not only with the intensity of all that is happening on that terrible day in Alia’s world, but also with the regular shifting of perspectives and time periods. The pacing of the chapters was on point, and just when I felt the need to get back to the other character, Mills seemed to anticipate that and POOF, chapter end. I was swept up in both the girls’ stories — Alia’s a little more so, due to the obvious magnitude of her situation — and felt desperate to catch up to the little snapshot the prologue gave to both their narratives.
While there were some bits that felt unrealistic (some of Jesse’s moments with Dave, the resolution of the story), there were a lot of parts that felt incredibly authentic (Jesse’s whirlwind involvement with Nick and his dangerous friends, Jesse’s girl gang, Alia’s short moments with her older brother before school and her inner monologue upon first meeting Travis, Jesse’s visit to the 9/11 museum). Here’s what I think about this book on a whole: It captured me and brought me right back to that day, giving me all the “remember where I was” feelings that accompany any mention of September 11th. But I also felt like it does an excellent job of making it real for all of those teenagers who weren’t alive yet in 2001, or were just tiny babes like Jesse. The author mentions in an interview she did with The New York Times that when her teenage son finished reading the novel, he asked her, “Did all that stuff really happen?” I’m guessing for today’s teens reading about September 11th is similar to how I feel when I read about the Titanic. It seems too dramatic to be real. But it was. So very real. Mills also does an excellent job (I think) of representing Islam to unfamiliar readers. Especially at a time when our President-elect is someone who wants to restrict the immigration rights of all Muslims, we need so many more stories that show the truth of Islam among all the misinformation and misconception. I’m not sure how Mills did her research on this part, but her execution felt spot-on (to this non-Muslim reader).
I want to give this book to all my students. It would probably help if I’d stop hoarding it on my bed table and get it back to school. It also made me want to read all the other 9/11 fiction that’s come out this year, although it sets quite the precedent.