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Book Review: That Day in September by Artie Van Why

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“You’re so full of shit,” I said to my friend, after he told me two planes just flew into the World Trade Center. Nonetheless, I followed him into the library’s reference section, where scores of students congregated around a 19-inch TV on a white AV cart.

No one moved, or even spoke; they just stared at the screen. As I approached, I froze too; the TV was an electronic Medusa, and I couldn’t look away.

I watched smoke cascade from the gaping holes in the World Trade Center buildings while tiny people, the size of my pinky nail, jumped to their deaths from various floors. Feeling completely detached, I watched the horrific footage feeling like I was half-asleep. Even when the towers crumbled to the ground moments later, I still stood there in eerie silence, not knowing what to do or say…

Two hundred miles away, Artie Van Why ran into the WTC complex trying to assist victims, knowing that a piece of flying debris could cleave his head from his shoulders at any time.

[ADBLOCKHERE]In his memoir That Day in September, Van Why recounts his frightening experiences as an ordinary citizen thrust into the front lines during the worst terrorist attack in American history. Utilizing remarkable imagery and very readable prose, he brings the real 9/11 to readers only familiar with the watered-down G-rated news footage and carefully edited television programs. Through his eyes, readers see and feel the human impact of 9/11 as he struggles with his fear, depression, and survivor’s guilt while re-examining his direction in life.

Beginning his compelling story in medias res, Van Why makes readers feel like they’re standing right by his side as the first plane crashes into the WTC, sending tremors throughout his office building. The chapter leaves readers in the doorway, about to see the Twin Towers burning across the street for the first time.

This effective hook transitions into a brief, pre-9/11 autobiography that sets the context for the rest of the memoir. He reflects on his life as a disillusioned young actor underemployed in a steady but unfulfilling job. Afraid of failure, Van Why’s defeatist attitude plunges him into complacency until 9/11 compels him to take control of his life. Juxtaposing his life before 9/11 with his introspective reflections in the weeks following, he adds a wonderful, humanistic element to his story. Readers sympathize not only with the tragedy he endures, but also with the internal journey stemming from it.

Up ahead of me, a man was lying in the middle of Fulton Street. He was a heavyset man in a suit, lying on his stomach. Everyone was running right by him. I started to run past him myself, but for whatever reason, I stopped and ran over to him. I dropped to my knees at his side. It was then I noticed all the blood and where it was coming from. His skull had been split open, and the top part of his brain was protruding through the split. Blood was gushing out of the wound.

Although this particular incident embeds itself permanently in his mind, Van Why successfully avoids hyperbole and melodrama, and instead achieves a balance between factual recollection and emotive storytelling. He maintains this balance throughout the narrative.

The only real problem plaguing That Day in September is brevity. There are a few areas requiring expansion, particularly in the last few chapters in which Van Why discusses the impact 9/11 had on his life. I came away from the book wanting to learn more about his journey.

Nonetheless, the book is refreshingly personal and real. While most books on 9/11 cast the spotlight on police, fire, and EMS personnel, Van Why focuses on the Everyman, exploring the heroic efforts of the average Joe during that harrowing time.

However, Van Why presents himself not as a hero, or even a victim; rather, he portrays himself as a regular guy blessed with a second chance in life. For this, he deserves our praise, and our gratitude.

That Day in September can be purchased for $9.95 at Lulu.

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