Letters from the War – Mothers, Brothers & Lovers

Cathy’s Hidden Gems features favorites & lesser known selections from the fiction shelves of the Portsmouth Public Library. By Cathy Okhuysen.

Book Covers - Letters from the War

Geraldine Brooks gives a voice to the beloved absent father from Little Women (Louisa May Alcott, 1868),  Mr. March, in her 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name:  March. She does this in part through letters he writes home.

 November 1, 1861

My Dear, Your very admirable letter and the welcome contents of your parcel came straight to hand. Many thanks to you for the warm wishes of the former and the warm wool of the latter. I rejoice to hear that you and my girls continue well as the cold season creeps onward; tell my dear Jo that she must not despise her knitting, but see her needles as jousting lances, for her fine blue socks are marching now into the fray.

Outside Harper’s ferry, January 15, 1862
March by Geraldine Brooks
…The ridges, though picturesque, made for hard marching, and we had every kind of precipitations to contend with. The new recruits joined us before marched, fresh-face New England boys, and not a few of them fell out with exhaustion attempting to carry packs and equipment weighing more than fifty pounds. Despite the hardships, the newcomers are in good spirits and spoiling for a fight (Simply because they have not yet had one) and that in itself cheers the veterans.

The Secret of Raven Point

There is something about reading a letter that connects us to the character in a more intimate way. From The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes:

Somewhere in Italy, 1944…..Dear Papa and Pearl……The doctors have been performing about eighty operations a day and everyone shuffles around like sleepwalkers.  Was it like this when you were in Belgium, Papa?  Is this why you never spoke about it?  I’m living in a pup tent with two other nurses…..Love, Juliet

As one thing leads to another…

A review of letters from, and during, wartime brings up several hidden gems, appropriate as we consider the sacrifice of our military veterans and families this Veterans Day.

Long, Long, Way, by Sebastian Barry, is our November book discussion title, and an achingly beautiful novel from an Irish writer who doesn’t shield reader from the horrors of war.   Our good wishes for Willie hold us through the poignant end of the book.

A-Long-Long-Way-by-Sebastian-Barry-Book-CoverThis letter from Willie sets up a terrible disagreement with his father – a unique view of an Irish soldier from Dublin who sees conflict both abroad and at home.

Royal Dublin Fusilers, Belgium 3 May 1916

Dear Papa, Thank you for writing back, Papa.  I am glad everyone is safe, very much so….Maybe at home some of the lads might be getting into trouble with you and your men!  Here I have to say they make fine soldiers….

In Elizabeth Berg‘s 2007 novel Dream When You’re Feeling Blue , in addition to the many letters that the Heaney sisters write to the fellas they meet at the USO dances, both Kitty and Louise have boyfriends overseas:

England January 1944

Last night I dreamed by mom was alive again, and she’d come over here with all her pots and pans in a big trunk.  She showed them to me and said she was going to cook me a big steak dinner, but that I shouldn’t tell the other boys, because she didn’t have enough for all of them……Well, I couldn’t do that, of course, so I told her, Oh, Just make hamburgers for all of us.

You Know When The Men Are Gone

Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011) is a collection of connected stories about modern military wives. In one story, Alpha Company from Fort Hood suffers casualties and Kilani’s emails to her husband in Bravo go unanswered:

ARE YOU OK?  Javier took two steps today!  E-MAIL ME ASAP!


Romance has always been challenging during wartime, whether by email or letter, such as this one in the well-reviewed novel Emily Hudson (2010), by Melissa Jones….

April 16th, 1861

My Dear Young Lady, It seems melodramatic to be bidding you farewell on the eve of battle, so I will simply inform you that we are on the move at last….I recall clearly your blue dress against the dark of the carriage, and the gaiety of our last meeting.  I hope neither of us will be so very much older when next I grasp your hand.  Yours truly, Captain James C.H. Lindsay

Some novels are almost entirely told by letters, like the beloved Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, set during the Nazi Occupation of Guernsey during WWII.  If you loved that, you must read Letters from Skye (2013), which bridges both WWI and WWII:

Isle of Skye 15 October 1915

You stupid, stupid boy! Did you expect me to be happy about this plan of yours?  With a husband at the front and a brother crippled from this blasted war, what on earth did you think I’d really say?

Edinburgh  Wednesday, 14 August 1940

Dear Paul,

It was working.U ncle Finlay was telling me about my mother in dribs and drabs.  There was something that he said “broke our family in pieces.” An then I mentioned the letter and the American and he’s stopped writing…….Margaret

Isle of Skye 23 February 1916

My darling boy, I am sorry for doubting you and the reasons you  joined the Field Service….There is a big difference between rushing out with a bayonet….and channeling all of that reckless energy into saving lives….E

Watch this sweet book trailer for Letters from Skye if you remain unconvinced!

We Are Called To RiseAnother epistolary fiction , Travis Nichols’s 2010 novel Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder,  engages the reader in a present day correspondence. “Pensive in the wake of 9/11, a young man—our ‘correspondent between the past and the present’—launches a mission to reunite his beloved grandfather, an American bombardier, with Luddie, the woman who saved him during WWII. Armed only with the address on the back of an old photograph and his grandfather’s memories, the young man begins writing letters to Luddie.”

A letter also plays a critical part in Laura McBride’s 2014 novel We Are Called to Rise… but perhaps that’s for another post!

Like this review? You can find more Staff Picks on our new Goodreads page!


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