We’re Here Because We’re Here: A Review of Ground Zero

Orin SimApril 23, 2024Crisis & ChangeMedia

9/11 was an absolute tragedy.

That’s what my teachers told me in elementary school. That’s what my friends told me after they had done their research project. That’s what the 9/11 exhibit in New York says. I had lots of exposure to the facts and the emotions that run through this topic. But I never read a book that made me really feel the horrors and the utter sense of hopelessness until I read Ground Zero by Alan Gratz.

It’s hard for someone like me who was born after the tragedy to really understand what happened that day. We want to comfort those who have suffered from the disaster and step into their shoes, but it is hard to comprehend the things they have gone through. This book is effective, because even though I will never get close to truly empathizing with people who have lived through the September 11 attacks, I am closer than I have ever been.

Ground Zero is a story told from two points of view. Brandon, from New York, is experiencing the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and Reshmina, in Afghanistan 18 years later, gets caught in battles between the extremist Taliban group and the American and Afghan Army. Brandon’s story helps the reader step into a portion of what happened on the terrible day, and Reshmina’s story helps us understand key events that have happened in recent years, because of the consequences of the attacks and the choices people made. Both are important for readers to get to experience what happened during the attacks, but also to understand the repercussions and the mistakes that happened afterwards.

Over the years, I have read a good amount of Alan Gratz books. What he does so well is convey human emotions on paper. Movies and TV have the advantage of showing characters’ actions. It’s hard to showcase that in books, because in the end we are looking at black ink over white paper. But in Ground Zero, the dialogue and Brandon’s thoughts feels real. You can feel the panic when the elevator starts to tip over. You can feel the level of grief that Brandon goes through. And you can feel relief, hollowness, and hopelessness. Gratz does this better in Ground Zero than any other book he has so far. In addition, the descriptions Gratz gives are detailed and vivid. I can picture the things the characters are going through easily. The story and themes are the highlight of this book, but all of this is excellently supported by the quality of writing.

Gratz connects Brandon’s and Reshmina’s stories by alternating chapters. After one chapter with Brandon, we spend another chapter with Reshmina. Even though it's nice that we get to see two compelling stories at once, the transitions between chapters often feel abrupt. Both stories hook you in easily and they can engage you throughout the chapter. Although this is nice, that level of engagement is always interrupted by a change in perspective after sometimes just a few pages in. The chapters aren’t very long, and because of that, the interruption and the cut-off of engagement is constant. If Gratz narrated multiple chapters, found a natural stopping point, and then changed perspectives, the stories would have been more engaging, but because of the interruptions, the stories feel chopped off on many different levels.

Nevertheless, the novel still delivers well in many categories. One of them are themes that often take place through Reshmina’s point of view. After the 9/11 attack, American soldiers are sent to Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden, the man who orchestrated the plane crashes. Although they find him after a few years, American soldiers are still in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban (the novel takes place in 2019, but as we know, America withdrew their troops from Afghanistan in 2021). The themes draw from these events. This novel tries to convey the message that although terrible catastrophes can happen, we must not be influenced by our need for revenge, since this will only cause further violence. Ground Zero plots out a journey from start to finish that helps us comprehend these themes and learn how to grow from mistakes and recover. How to change. These are the lessons Gratz tries to teach us and he does this with style, impact, and heart.

In conclusion, Ground Zero is an emotional rollercoaster with impactful themes that stick with you. Although the narrative switching between two perspectives often took me out of the book, and some of the chapters are a bit repetitive at times, overall, this book does more than enough to give you a compelling ride. I rate this book four out of five stars and I hope you all read this captivating book!

Orin Sim is a 14-year-old from Omaha, Nebraska.