The graphic novel ”American Widow,” written by Alissa Torres and illustrated by Sungyoon Choi, is a memoir about the author; her husband, Luis Eduardo Torres; and his death on 11 September, 2001.
That day is fraught with so many emotional and political landmines for countless people that a critic might hesitate to review such an account, especially if the work is less than stellar. Fortunately, ”American Widow” is very good -- largely because of the author’s willingness to address difficult issues, including her anger at her husband and her frustration in dealing with relief agencies that at times alternated between being overeager and counterproductive.
”American Widow” starts quietly, but the mood is deceptive. ”September 11, 2001” is printed under the first chapter heading, and the next page is just a field of sea-foam blue, evoking the good weather that began that terrifying, profoundly momentous day. The third page shows two birds gently flying in that tranquil sky.
Then disaster: a television set blares, ”Turn on your TV!” in multiple languages. The image on the set shows the twin towers billowing with smoke as the news of the World Trade Center’s being hit by a plane is reported.
The next sequence illustrates the power of the graphic-novel format. Four pages shift locales and move forward in time, panel by panel, from Torres, watching the news alone in her bedroom with a hand on her pregnant belly; to President Bush, reading to elementary school children in Sarasota, Fla.; to reactions around the world as people were glued to their televisions or watched the events from their window.
The fourth page hints at difficulties to come. Three people -- a taxi driver, a cook and a man at home with three children -- all hear ”You’re under arrest” as the process of finding those responsible for the attacks begins.
That’s a tale, however, for another book. Instead Torres shares, in flashbacks, the story of the life of her husband, known as Eddie. We see his journey to the United States from Colombia, his struggles to find work and his arrival at Cantor Fitzgerald, where he began a job on 10 September, 2001. Those scenes are interwoven with Torres’s new life as a 9/11 widow, first waiting to learn of Eddie’s fate and then having to cope with the bureaucracies offering aid earmarked for the victims’ families.
The account of the couple’s courtship is brief, mercifully so, because the details of their domestic relationship are more compelling. In 12 pages the Torreses go from meeting in August 1998 to marrying and moving to Queens to conceiving a child in early 2001. In August of that year, Eddie loses a job, and an image wonderfully captures the anxiety Torres feels. ”How will we pay our bills?” she wonders, as the panel borders overflow with papers indicating their mounting debt.
A scene in the predawn of 11 September shows the couple in bed. He is exhausted and sleeping soundly; she is staring at the clock, still fuming after a fight they had hours before. In the morning, still angry, she daydreams. ”Maybe I should leave him ... go to Hawaii and start again,” she thinks as she walks down the street, her head filled with visions of a lush luau, a well-built surfer and a romantic sunset. She comes home, upset that there is no message of apology, only to receive a phone call with more terrible news.
In this scene and throughout the book, which is black and white with bursts of sea-foam blue and the occasional red and blue, Choi’s illustrations are sharply observed. She does a great job of distinguishing a large cast of characters and settings. She’s also called upon to draw images of the towers as they fell and the aftermath at the site. One of the most evocative drawings is a full page that shows the void in the wake of the collapse.
The day after 11 September -- which Torres spends primarily hoping Eddie will come home to her -- she begins a quest for information about him: Is he still alive? If there was anything good in that time, it was ”those magical days when all lines parted for me,” she recalls. Being seven months pregnant with a missing husband earns her extra sympathy from relief agencies.
But that initial warmth slowly turns into frustration as the days elapse. Page 50, which shows an unidentified burn victim she visits -- just in case it is Eddie -- captures the mounting tension. The reactions from those who want to assist range from simply stating, ”What can I do?” to shouting ”I want to help!” to hysterically screeching, ”Please, what can I do to help?”
It seems as if for every cranky volunteer she meets, there is a good Samaritan who assists her. But it’s the bad experiences that linger. When Torres goes to the Red Cross for financial aid in bringing her husband’s family to New York for his funeral, the red tape is almost more than she can bear.
”I can’t stand looking at her,” she thinks of the administrator processing her request. ”Why is she so mean?” Ultimately, the organization will cover the expenses, but not tell her precisely when -- despite the fact that the funeral is that weekend. ”That’s our policy,” the administrator says. ”Be thankful that we’re at least offering you this assistance.”
Torres also recounts her struggle to receive benefits from Cantor Fitzgerald. Her relationship with the company begins positively on 11 September when she speaks to its chief executive, Howard W. Lutnick, but weeks later she is still at sea, trying to prove that Eddie was employed by the company. It’s not until Oct. 24 -- when she says, ”Look, if we can’t straighten this thing out today, I’ll talk to the press” -- that the wheels start spinning in her favor.
As the first anniversary of the attack draws close, Torres is filled with dread. ”New York was our home,” she thinks, ”but I just can’t be here this week.” Who can blame her when banners reading ”Just 21 More Days” seem more appropriate for a countdown of the shopping days before Christmas?
She is also still filled with anger. ”You told me, ’I want to turn 90 beside you,’ but you didn’t,” she thinks. ”I am still so mad at you.”
On 11 September, 2002, Torres is in Hawaii with their son. In four panels, a page shows her writing a note in her hotel room; staring at the moon with arms crossed; a close-up of the note (”Dearest, sorry we fought about nothing”); and a boat setting off to sea. The view slowly pans out until the book’s final sea-foam-blue page, this time evoking a more peaceful day.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES