They find me in all sorts of places; libraries, bookstores, antique shops, used bookshops, through friends and family, and from you, dear readers, which is how I learned about a tender novel I just finished.
When a book recommendation comes my way, especially through blogs and emails and comments here on the Cutoff, I pen them to paper; on a TBR list, where they sit in patient abeyance for just the right moment to present themselves. Most eventually see the whites of my eyes.
So it was with a recent review of “Letters From Skye,” by Jessica Brockmole, which I read on Cath’s blog over at Read_Warbler. An epistolary novel, “Letters from Skye” spans two world wars.. The letters begin in 1912. Elspeth Dunn, a published writer of poetry, lives on the remote Scottish Isle of Skye. She receives her first fan letter from David Graham, a student from Urbana, Illinois. Elspeth writes back, a long correspondence begins, as does a journey of heart and soul and eventually love in the midst of WWI.
It is not just Elspeth’s and David’s letters that tell this story, however. When bombing rocks Edinburg in WWII, Margaret finds her mother clutching letters from a gaping hole in a wall that a bomb exposes. Margaret sees one letter, addressing Sue, and soon begins an adventure, via letters of her own, as another world war tilts the British Isles. Who is Sue? Where did the letters come from? Why were they hidden in the wall?
Cath’s well written review of the book immediately caught my attention. It was the location of Urbana, Illinois, however, that piqued my curiosity. I mentioned to Cath that I almost went to college there many moons ago – and yes, there really is an Urbana in Illinois. It is, in fact, now a very big and quite prestigious school, the University of Illinois at Champagne/Urbana, with an equally prominent extension in Chicago. In fact, the U 0f I Chicago extension sits on land where I spent the first four years of my life. I digress. It was a bit of fun reading about Davey, as he is quickly addressed by Elspeth, and his antics while in school in Urbana.
It was equally interesting reading about Elspeth’s secluded life in her crofter’s cottage on Skye, awaiting the return of her husband, first from the sea, then from the war. The fact that she has already published poetry while living on a remote island immediately shadows her independent character, even though she has never been on a ferry to cross over to Scotland.
“Letters from Skye” is a sensitive story that opens slowly and reveals more of the characters as the letters crisscross the Atlantic. Reading it brought to mind “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” as well as “84 Charring Cross Road”. Whether true, as Helene Hannf’s book is, or imagined, as “Letters from Skye” and “The Guernsey Literary . .. ” are, there is something that draws a reader into story telling through letters. At the same time, “Letters from Skye” evokes Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms”, for Davey does eventually cross the ocean and becomes an ambulance driver with the American Field Service in France before the United States entered World War I.
While this novel opens slowly, it does so in the most compelling of ways. I was almost as anxious for the next letter to arrive as the characters of the book seemed to be. In fact, there were times I simply put “Letters from Skye” down and walked away for a spell, as if to absorb the anticipation of waiting for the next post. Through what is written, and what is not, there is a palpable sense of time and place, actions and consequences, anxiety and resolve. What surprised me as this epistle came to a close were the tears that welled in my eyes as the last of the letters were read. I had not realized, until almost the very end, how much Brockmole’s characters meant to me.