Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Secret Life in Letters

Can anyone else remember the days when going to the mailbox was fun because you never knew when you might find something wondrous tucked in among the bills and used car lot ads? Something we used to call a letter?

And will anyone admit to having a secret stash of old letters, perhaps written in a frilly fountain-pen script, kept in a cigar box, treasured forever? Love letters. Or letters from a dear friend. Letters that made a long journey over rivers and mountains and plains to your mailbox, a journey from the sender’s heart to yours.

One of my favorite letter writing adventures happened in high school. My friend Doug went away to Wheaton College, and he wrote to me about his classes and his struggles with his family. I felt like I had a secret life, writing to Doug. No matter how harassing school was sometimes, there was always the possibility that I might come home that afternoon and find another letter from Doug. My mother wasn't quite sure this correspondence was proper, and that made it all the more delicious. 

When it was my turn to go away to college, I remember sitting in classes, writing letters home to Mom and Dad. It was a way for me to process the events of my new life and to preserve the ties with my old life. Years later, when we cleaned out my parents' house for the last time, I found those letters, full of memories, a piece of my younger self preserved in those hand-written pages.

There’s just something wonderful about letters, especially when they are filled with warmth, wit, and cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die confidences. Back in the day, letters from Karen came in her beautiful elven-like script, full of excitement about books and music. Letters from Brenda, written on yellow legal pad sheets, were funny and whimsical. Letters from Steve were typed and literary and questioned the meaning of everything. Oh my gosh, I miss letters so much!

And that is precisely the feeling I get from a novel recommended by my friend Kathy: The Guernsey  Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The story is told entirely through letters written by the characters—Juliet Ashton, a nonfiction writer; Sidney Stark, her publisher; and Dawsey Adams and the other quirky members of a book club on the Island of Guernsey, in the English Channel. The time is post World War II, and Guernsey, occupied by Nazis during the war, has many stories to tell.

The real story opens with a letter from Dawsey to Juliet, written simply because he had stumbled upon a book she used to own. From that simple beginning, a tale unfolds of many acts of courage and defiance during the Occupation, of a girl's doomed love affair with a German soldier, of their daughter being raised by the Literary Society. Juliet will travel to Guernsey and meet her new friends and her new life.

The Chanel Islands

There are special challenges in writing an epistolary novel. The letters must be written in the authentic voices of the characters, and the letters must tell a bigger story that builds to a climax. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society rises to these challenges and succeeds brilliantly.

If like me, you miss the days when people wrote long and lovely letters, just wait for a snowy afternoon and curl up on the couch with a cup of peppermint tea and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.


  1. How I miss the days when I would find letters from Grandma or Aunt Margaret in my mailbox! For months, if not years, after their deaths, I would still find myself wondering if a letter would be waiting for me that day. I have boxes of letters I've saved from both of them, along with many I'd written to them that came back to me after they died. They had saved them, just as I'd save theirs! Every now and then I get them out to read over a cup of tea. Somehow, e-mails don't convey quite the same sense of love, do they?

    And the book you recommend? Heavenly!

  2. Oh, I remember the joy of receiving letters!

    ...After all, some might say that letters changed my life. ;)

  3. Letters--even the writing is a joy! A way to be alone AND with the people you love at the same time. :)