I love epistolary novels. Letter writing, good letter writing, is a true art, one that I admittedly never mastered. It seems a rather archaic talent at this point, since so few people have the time or inclination to write letters anymore. Maybe the epistolary novel will disappear as people forget what real letters looked like, which would be a shame. (Although new forms are evolving all the time. Tweeted novels, etc.) They do still exist, of course. Historical fiction is the most obvious place to find them. The wonderful The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is as fine an example as you could hope to find. And, thankfully, if you want to settle back and read someone else’s delightful story in letters, you can always go back to a golden oldie.
I’m pleased to report, the book (written in 1912!) retains the power to charm.
Jerusha (or sometimes Judy) Abbott is a promising orphan who was given a scholarship to a girls’ college by an anonymous benefactor with the simple requirement that she write him letters to update him on her progress. I should say almost anonymous. Jerusha caught a quick glimpse of the man and knows him to be very tall. Being something of a free-spirit, rather than using a stuffy To- Whom-It-May-Concern, she addresses her letters to Dear Daddy-Long-Legs.
What follows is a delightful coming-of-age tale of a guileless, generous, honest young girl who is intellectually curious, friendly, genuinely grateful for the opportunity she has been given, and utterly determined to be a credit to her benefactor and ultimately repay him. She has a few moments of self-pity but never wallows in it, and it is lovely to see her express her lows with as much whole-heartedness as she does her highs. As we follow her years at school, its impossible not to grow as enchanted with her as her benefactor does.
Can the reader see the twist at the end coming before Judy does? Well, yes. But rather than making her seem dumb, Judy’s naivete is somehow quaint. Isn’t the book a little hokey? Yes, a little. But that’s part of its charm. Aren’t we all pretty sophisticated now? A bit jaded and cynical? Forget all that. Every once in a while, it’s a simple pleasure to read a well-written book that shows a girl facing the world with wide-eyed wonder and ending up joyfully surprised.