When we first meet 16 year-old Kyle Donohue in Gae Polisner’s The Memory of Things, he is making his way across the Brooklyn Bridge. He is heading home from school among the many others who are scrambling toward safety after terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center. In the midst of this exodus, Kyle’s attention is drawn to a figure on the edge of the bridge. He thinks it could be a large bird. He soon discovers that this figure is a girl wearing wings. “On the bridge, in those wings. Covered in ash. Then, leaning out like she was going to fly. No, like she wanted to fall” (111). Kyle is compelled to rescue her and bring her back to his home.
The Memory of Things might be set during September 11th, but the novel chronicles all of the challenges that Kyle faces. His father and uncle are working at Ground Zero which brings with it great uncertainty. His mother and younger sister are also supposed to be flying home from California. This leaves Kyle as the only one available to care for his favorite uncle, who is home recovering from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Lastly, his “bird girl” seems to be in shock and is perhaps suffering from a case of amnesia.
Gae Polisner’s writing delicately and deftly captures this heartbreaking day. Her novel will allow teen readers to experience the uncertainty many of us felt, while sparing them the graphic images seared into our own memories. Through their reading, they will come to understand the events of the day like Kyle: “So, now I get it. Now I fully understand. Tuesday, and those planes, they’ve broken something. Permanently. And, in the process, they’ve changed everything. And everyone” (153-154). While those of us alive during 9/11 might be hesitant to relive it, our students are curious. After reading a synopsis of The Memory of Things, my readers expressed an interest because they felt the events of that day have been filtered mainly through adult voices and they thought experiencing it through a teenager’s perspective (even a fictional one) would speak to them in a new way. They know to speak of that day using words like “tragedy,” “devastation,” and “helplessness.” But these labels seem empty in their ability to convey the loss felt by those affected. It is through Kyle’s story that readers will find insight about this event that shaped the America they live in.
My readers are drawn to books that have multiple narrators. Many of them also love reading books written in verse. The Memory of Things offers both of these features. Readers will get to hear from both Kyle (prose) and the “bird girl” (verse). This offers the opportunity for readers to think about how the format of each character’s voice reflects who they are and where they are emotionally. I think another praiseworthy quality of this story is Kyle’s exploration of masculinity. He feels pressure from the men in his family to be a certain way and he is trying to reconcile that with his own ideals. This is an important tension to explore with students. Kyle is an earnest character, one who readers will want to follow on this journey. Ultimately, while The Memory of Things is set during tragedy, it is a story of healing, in its many forms.
Initially, I will be using this book in the spring for an after-school book club that typically draws about 40 students. Next year, I plan to include it as part of my curriculum. I envision a literature circle with several other novels like Eleven, Nine, Ten, and Towers Falling. Although each book poses their own important questions, I’d like to focus our overall exploration through the lens of resilience and how people survive experiences that seem insurmountable. Each novel approaches the same historical event from a distinct perspective, which is why I believe using them in a literature circle would be an enriching opportunity for students. Other teachers can easily make the case for such a choice. This literature circle would fall under the 7th grade Common Core standard RL9: “Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.” It also opens up possibilities to collaborate, especially with your history or art department.
And I will close with perhaps my favorite section of the book: “Change comes in two ways. The first is the blindside way that comes without warning. Like Uncle Matt’s motorcycle accident. Or the Twin Towers collapsing one Tuesday morning as you’re minding your own business in school. Or a girl showing up out of nowhere, covered in ash, and wearing some costume wings. That kind of change takes your breath away. But other times, change comes gradually, in that sure, steady way you can sense coming a mile away. Or maybe a day away. Or, maybe, a few short hours. And since you know it’s coming, you’re supposed to prepare. Brace yourself against the stinging blow. But just because you plant your feet wider, doesn’t mean the blow won’t take you down” (225).