Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Hingson, Michael with Flory, Susy. Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2011. Print.
Michael Hingson was working on the 78th floor in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 when American Airlines Flight 11 flew into floors 93 through 99 of the building. Hingson, blind from infancy due to a medical procedure used to provide oxygen to premature babies, his guide dog, Roselle, and a small group of employees descended Stairwell B in a race to get out of the building before it collapsed. They needed to go down 1,463 stairs. Thunder Dog is the riveting account of their escape from death.
Hingson and co-writer Susy Flory, open the book with a history of the disease called retinopathy of prematurity that blinded thousands of premature babies in the 1940s and early 1950s. Hingson’s parents refused to treat their son as a liability, and Hingson learned to be self-sufficient in a world that saw him as handicapped.
In chapter 1, the authors show Hingson and Roselle at home the evening before the hijacked airplane attacks on the World Trade Center. Roselle is terrified of an approaching thunderstorm, and this helps the reader empathize with her as an animal with feelings and fears. This also serves as contrast to Roselle’s unshakable calm and heroism in the ensuing tragedy to come.
To heighten the sense of immediacy, the authors use first-person present tense to convey what is happening inside the World Trade Center when the plane hits. The reader is inside Hingson’s thoughts and sees what he hears and senses as the chaos unfolds. The narrative changes seamlessly to past tense when Hingson slips into memory to recall his first meeting with a guide dog handler and his eventual introduction to his fifth guide dog, Roselle.
The narrative weaves back and forth: the urgency in the stairwell as burn victims are rushed down for medical assistance, and firefighters and paramedics are racing upward to try to help those still trapped. Then the tension eases off: Hingson reflects on riding a neighbor girl’s bike at the age of six. Hingson’s parents purchase a bike for him, and he recalls how a concerned neighbor phoned his parents to warn them their son was actually on a bike in the street as if this was an activity he should be banned from. In the course of Hingson’s memories and musings, the reader learns about a high school math teacher who taught Hingson geometry by reciting what he was writing on the board, how a dog smells fear with over 200 million olfactory nose receptors, the way a blind person uses echolocation to mountain bike or ride a skateboard, or that the unemployment rate for blind people is about 70 percent.
The reader is immersed in Hingson’s harrowing account and is brought to the edge of devastation as the South Tower crumbles and engulfs the area around Hingson and Roselle in a cloud of debris after they barely escape the North Tower.
Then in a point of view switch, the authors go into the mind and thoughts of Hingson’s wife, Karen, when she receives a call from her husband immediately after the plane hits the North Tower: “My heart beats hard, and I feel fear. I begin to pray. Please watch over Mike and the others in those towers. Lord, keep them safe and help them to make it out. Get Mike home safely.”
Thunder Dog is gripping because the reader is made to experience what it is like to be blind under the most desperate of circumstances. And in doing so, perhaps, just perhaps, the reader will come to understand what it is to be blind in a world geared to those who can see.