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Return to Gander: Jim DeFede updates his 2002 book that inspired ‘Come From Away’

 (Kristi Burns / The Spokesman-Review)
(Kristi Burns / The Spokesman-Review)

Hard to imagine now, but there was a time in this century when Americans were united and hopeful for the future, when people worked together for the good of the country, no matter what their political affiliation.

For those who just turned 21, it seems unimaginable, something they can’t remember in their lifetime. But on Sept. 11, 2001, the country turned from despair to hope. A terrible terrorist attack struck the heart of America’s financial and military power, shocking the consciousness of a nation, killing 2,994 people, injuring some 6,000 and changing the lives of millions.

Almost overnight, a nation that had a year earlier battled through the most contentious presidential election in history came together.

Ironically, the most inspiring story of courage and compassion came from rural Canadians on the island of Gander, Newfoundland. That story was first told by former Spokesman-Review reporter Jim DeFede in his 2002 book “The Day the World Came to Town.”

Twenty years later, DeFede has updated this inspiring story for re-release. Since it first came out, there has been a radio play in Britain, a TV movie in Canada, a Winter Olympics moment, a documentary, and the outstanding Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Come from Away.”

The story is worth telling, and reading, again.

As America experiences the pains of political division, making that hope after 9/11 seems like distant history, it’s inspiring to remember the hundreds of “newfies” who came together to help thousands whose flights over the Atlantic were ordered to land after hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Gander, which had served as a military airstrip in World War II and then a flight refueling station after the war, had little used runways that could handle the planes stuck in the air. The residents, meanwhile, came together to take care of the passengers who couldn’t get home.

We get to revisit Bruce and Susan MacLeod. The couple had moved to Gander from the mainland of Canada only four years earlier. They had “come from aways” as locals liked to call those not born and raised there. Like hundreds of others, the MacLeods rushed to help the stranded strangers and make them feel at home, people like Beth and Billy Wakefield of Goodlettsville, Tennessee.

“Beth couldn’t help but appreciate the MacLeod’s warmth and friendship,” DeFede writes. “Walking through the house she noticed that all of the mattresses in the guest bedrooms had been stripped. Like everyone else in the Lions Club, the MacLeods had stripped their own beds to provide sheets and blankets and pillows for the passengers.”

We also find out what happened to Ralph.

“Few characters in my book have elicited more excitement than Ralph, the purebred cocker spaniel,” DeFede writes. No spoilers here, but Ralph’s story has an ending.

It’s still a great story and one of hope.

If only we could find that spirit again in 2022.

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