I’ve been struggling with this review for the past few days. You see, the photograph on the cover of David Levithan’s Love Is the Higher Law is identical to the view of New York from my hometown. I can see the beams of light from my bedroom window at my parent’s house. My hometown lost 37 people on Sept. 11, “more victims per capita than any other place in the state and the second hardest hit city after New York.” Almost ten years later, 9/11 is still raw in my mind. I was in my freshman year of college at Rutgers when the towers fell, and I will never, ever forget what that day felt like. What it still feels like to hear name after name on the anniversary of people I went to church with, people whose kids played sports with me, people who were there one day and gone in an instant.
David Levithan was in his office in New York on the morning of September 11th and experienced the horror firsthand. He wrote Love Is the Higher Law after realizing that while there is a plethora of literature about 9/11 aimed at adults, there isn’t much aimed at the YA market. For many teens, 9/11 is a distant and vague memory. I experience the same shock every year when my new students tell me they were in kindergarten or preschool on 9/11. This year’s class will have been one or two years old. 9/11 isn’t even history to them- it’s beyond that. But Levithan wanted to capture the feelings that permeated throughout the city in the days and months following the tragedy so that teens would be able to connect with it.
In Love Is the Higher Law, we meet three teens on September 11th. Claire is in high school that morning, Peter is skipping class to buy the new Bob Dylan record, and Jasper is sleeping because he isn’t due back to college yet. Their lives are forever changed on 9/11. Only acquaintances before that day, Claire and Peter go to the same high school. Peter and Jasper are supposed to go on their first date on the night of September 11th. Their lives become intertwined like so many New Yorkers that day. As they work through their individual grief, anger, and hope, they grow closer to each other. What begins as nothing more than friendly hellos before the Towers fell becomes a deep-seeded friendship and love.
This isn’t a typical YA book. The plot doesn’t rise and fall, the climax is hard to pinpoint. Instead, this is an emotional ride. I identified most with Claire, but I saw pieces of myself in all three main characters. I wasn’t in New York City on September 11th, but I shared many of the same experiences 35 miles away. When Claire describes watching her high school classmates frantically call their parents from their cell phones, I pictured my floormate who walked past my door no less than 20 times in 2 minutes. She was trying to get ahold of her father, who worked in the Towers. When Jasper logs onto the internet to search for more information instead of the same information over and over from the news anchors I remembered refreshing the internet constantly at my desk. When Peter described the smoke and smell hanging over the city I remembered my mother telling me you could see the flames from the beach by our house, and that there was a huge cloud of smoke and a smell enveloping Middletown. And When Jasper started getting emails and IMs from classmates worried about his whereabouts I immediately remembered my high school network reaching out, getting in touch with everyone in NY, Washington, DC, and Maryland. Repeatedly I found myself crying while reading Love Is the Higher Law.
I don’t think I can ever put into words what that day and the ensuing weeks felt like. The complete despondency and hopelessness felt by so many. The feelings of compassion and unity that brought strangers together. The hope that grew and blossomed. And the feelings of confusion and loss felt by so many when we declared war on Iraq. 9/11 altered my college experience but it brought us closer together. Like Claire, Peter, and Jasper.
This is an amazing book and one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to YA readers and adults. Those who experienced 9/11 firsthand, in NY/NJ, will immediately connect with this book. But it will also open up a window into that world for teens who weren’t near the city that day. Definitely add this to your YA collections. David Levithan has written a somber yet hopeful story that will echo for decades to come. I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this to my own children someday to share what my experience was like that day.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher