Friday, February 21, 2014

The Power of Letters

Most of the time, I don’t think of myself as old. In chronological terms I’m not—not yet, although the invitations to join the AARP have begun arriving in the mail. But by the standards of the technological dynamo that is the Internet, I am a dinosaur. I can remember a time when trans-Atlantic calls were reserved for death and disaster notifications. I scrawl best wishes by hand on my Christmas cards, even if time constraints and the sheer number of cards restricts me to a line or two. Those preprinted family news updates are not for me, however much I enjoy reading them from others. I feel awkward if I don’t acknowledge gifts with handwritten notes. And although I much prefer e-mail for its immediacy and its brevity, I have been known to send letters to elderly relatives—typed, these days, not written longhand, but I have many longhand letters in my past.

So the world depicted in Letters from Skye, the subject of my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, is not as alien to me as I expect it is to many readers. The idea that two individuals living thousands of miles apart, communicating through paper and ink, can move from respectful distance to friendship to love—buoyed only by the power of words—seems less strange than the idea that two people can form a lasting relationship on eHarmony.com. Letters, in a way, offer the perfect vehicle for romance: a combination of distance and intimacy that simultaneously delivers the reality and the illusion of connection. I could say the same of e-mail or social media: how many of those Facebook “friends” can truly be considered friends, even though we feel as if we know them after weeks of shared and liked posts? But the very slowness with which a letter passes from its point of origin to its destination imbues it with a particular charm. The line dashed off in haste must still wait days or weeks for a reply, with all the nail biting and trauma that implies. And what of the writer, who may not match up in reality to the reader’s expectations?

These issues and more form the heart of Letters from Skye, an in-depth and beautifully realized exploration of the power of the written word to pull people together and apart, to realize individual dreams, to cause and resolve family conflicts. Through a series of contrasts—the United States and Scotland, World War I and World War II, mothers and daughters, extrovert versus introvert—Jessica Brockmole weaves a story of burgeoning love and its unexpected consequences, both short- and long-term.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction, where you can download all my interviews for free and subscribe to be notified of updates.


In March 1912, a college student at the University of Illinois takes time away from his usual pursuits—painting the dean’s horse blue, climbing dorm walls with a sack of squirrels, reading Huckleberry Finn—to write a letter to a Scottish poet living on the remote Isle of Skye. As the young man, David Graham, notes in his first paragraph, poetry is not his usual literary fare, but something in this book has touched his soul. A few weeks later, his poet, Elspeth Dunn, responds, initiating a conversation that will flourish as friendship and eventually as romance, with consequences that reach across the first world war and into the next.

To sustain a novel entirely through the exchange of letters poses a challenge to any writer, although the epistolary novel itself has a long tradition: the earliest novels adopted this form. Here David and Elspeth emerge as two distinct personalities, drawn to each other across the cultural divide symbolized by the Atlantic Ocean and the greater divide that propels David to war in France even as Elspeth clings to her island. But it takes the determination of a second generation at war to bring Elspeth and David’s story to its natural conclusion.

In this sparkling debut novel, Jessica Brockmole explores the many layers of connection that bind lovers and family members across the years and through adversity. With its exquisite descriptions of place and its ability to evoke the myth-drenched wildness of the Hebrides, Letters from Skye will pull you into the lives of David, Elspeth, and their families. It’s a journey you will not regret taking.

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