American Widow

American Widow tackles a subject still painful to the American psyche. The writer, Alissa Torres, was made the widow of the title on September 11, 2001. Her husband Eddie had just started a new job in the World Trade Center, and she was 7½ months pregnant. This graphic novel traces how she survived after the most traumatic event of her life.

American Widow cover
American Widow
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Her experience is exceptional, not one many of us can even imagine, which makes her telling involving. But other emotions will be raised in the reader as well: anger, at the organizations that keep her from the promised benefits that will allow her to raise their child; despair, at the loss of love; fear, that such an unpredictable event could happen to us; even more anger, at the media and charitable groups who want to exploit a widow and new baby to show how much they care.

The events are told in a straightforward, easy-to-read style with recognizable figures and locations. The pages are black and white with aqua highlights, which feels like reporting given depth by the touches of color. It’s hard to believe that this is illustrator Sungyoon Choi‘s first book, as well as Torres’. It reminds me of Night Fisher or the work of Adrian Tomaine, only with more emotion, less polish.

The illustrated format allows Torres to show, not tell, which makes it all more approachable. The short chapters each cover one topic — such as receiving the news or arranging the funeral or visiting the site — and their brevity allows for reading breaks when the material becomes too affecting, as well as for changing moods depending on circumstances.

After immediately setting the stage for that particular day of tragedy, the book flashes back to the Torres’ first meeting, showing how they met, fell in love, and married. Romances are familiar to everyone and yet each is unique. Theirs started with a dance, a walk, a kiss… but things were complicated by his immigration status. Later chapters range from how she coped with aggravating details to exploring her emotions of loneliness or getting caught in endless what-ifs.

More than just the story of one lost love, American Widow leaves the reader understanding just how aggravatingly mundane survival is. Torres can’t be left alone to cope with her loss; instead, she’s trapped by the many details she has to decide on, and no one really wants to help her. Entrenched bureaucracy, whether the local government or the Red Cross or a large employer, doesn’t really care about any individual, regardless of public promises. And those who mean well can cause a lot of pain because they don’t really understand what they think they do. Some (like cartoonist Ted Rall) purposefully attack a non-existent greed out of their own selfishness. Even those who went through a similar loss have different circumstances or reactions, leaving her feeling even more alone.

Ultimately, it’s a frustrating book. It’s a thought-provoking story of survival, with unusual perspectives on a powerful event, but the meaning is still so raw, both for Torres and the rest of us. There’s little closure, and many unanswered questions left, but I appreciate Torres and Choi for raising them. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

USA Today talked to the writer while the NY Times also reviewed the book.

2 Responses to “American Widow”

  1. Tim O'Shea Says:

    Johanna, possibly just a dullard question on my part–but should we not expect the book to be frustrating?

  2. Johanna Says:

    Based on the subject matter, yes … but I was also referring to the question of craft.

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