Dear Edward: the novel I wrote to try to save a little boy
Ann Napolitano on how a boy tragically orphaned in a plane crash inspired her book
Ann Napolitano: In these moments of communal grief, we see – we understand – that we belong to one another. W. Photograph: Jake Chessum
The genesis of my novel, Dear Edward, was my obsession with a real plane crash. In 2010, a flight from South Africa to London crashed in Libya and there was only one survivor, a nine-year-old Dutch boy. He was found still buckled into his seat, about a half-mile away from the rest of the wreckage. He had a punctured lung and a broken leg, but was otherwise fine. Everyone else on the flight – including his parents and brother – had died immediately.
This was a huge international news story, though very few people remember it now. (Too much has happened since then, perhaps, and our brains have room for only so many sad stories?)
One aspect of the coverage that fascinated me was that, for the first time, a story of this scope wasn’t being told only by journalists. In 2010 social media had taken a drastic leap in popularity, and was close to what we recognise it as today, which meant that everyone you knew – including your mother – was on Facebook.
Young girls, around the same age as the Dutch boy, created Facebook pages devoted to him, and posted about how sad they were for the little boy, and how cute he was. Airplane aficionados were speculating online about why the flight might have crashed. It was leaked online that the president of Libya had phoned the boy in the hospital to wish him well.
I was able to sit at my kitchen table in Brooklyn and read the questions and emotions of not just the gatekeepers to the news event, but of everyone. Perhaps this contributed to my feeling that this story was mine to engage with, too? I’m not sure.
I do know that as I sat at my table and read everything I could about this disaster, nearly every post, article and feature contained the same photograph. When I think of the news story now, 10 years later, it’s that image that comes to mind first. It was a photo of the Dutch boy in his hospital bed, looking so beautiful, and so broken, and so small. I had two little boys at the time – they were one and three – and I wondered how this child could possibly climb out of that hospital bed, and leave that hospital, without his mom and dad and brother? The photograph haunted me, and that question did, too.
Plane crashes remain one of the top fears across the population. Most of us have flown in an airplane, and will fly again, multiple times. We are keenly aware, as we board a plane, that we are not in control of what happens to us once the entrance door is closed. We don’t like being out of control.
If you’re in a car with a driver who seems unsteady, you can tell them to pull over and get out if you like. This isn’t possible – unless you’re a trained pilot – on an airplane. To see that lack of control play out to its worst possible conclusion might explain why we watch with fascination and horror when a plane does crash.
When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in 2014, we were riveted. How could it disappear in this highly wired world? Where had it gone? How would we feel, if we were one of the passengers looking out the oval-shaped window as our plane flew into…nothingness?
Social media played a role in the aftermath of that flight, too. There was a fascinating article in The Atlantic last summer that caught us up on the story of that incident, and told about a Seattle lawyer who had read about the disappeared plane and devoted his life to finding the missing pieces of the aircraft across the world. He used social media to find clues, and connect with the families that had lost loved ones on the flight.
Perhaps we follow these stories because we can imagine ourselves playing every role. We can imagine gripping the armrest on the plane, screaming and scanning our life history as the plane we’re on plummets, and we can imagine getting a phone call one afternoon telling us that the plane carrying our husband crashed and that there were no survivors.
I experienced the crash in 2010 as a young mother, and a writer. I needed the Dutch boy to be okay, because I wanted to believe that if something this terrible happened to one of my boys, they could not only survive, but find a way to live. I created a set of fictional circumstances in Dear Edward that plotted a path in which that could believably happen.
I wrote to keep that plane in the sky, and to help the young boy starting a new life alone on the ground. I tried to build a world that was stitched together with kindness and love, because I knew that without kindness, Edward wouldn’t have a chance. In the novel, people follow Edward, in person and on social media. I had followed the story of the Dutch boy on social media, so I understood that those strangers were invested in Edward’s story.
After all, I had been so invested that I’d done something crazy: write a novel to try to save a little boy on the other side of the world, and to save my sons, who didn’t yet need saving. The people who logged online to follow Edward after his crash were probably thinking: that could have been me who just lost everything. I want him to be okay. I want to be okay. In these moments of communal grief, we see – we understand – that we belong to one another. We try, with whatever tools we have at our disposal – our attention, our kindness, our words – to save one another.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano is published by Viking