Monday, September 23, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

I’ve been eager to get my hands on Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. It’s an epistolary novel and I love that format. It’s set in Scotland, in Edinburgh and on the remote Island of Skye, and I guess also in Illinois, although the setting of the male protagonist didn’t make as much of an impression on me. Most of the story takes place during WWI, but it begins during WWII, and then unfolds with flashbacks.

I’m making it sound more confusing than it is.

Elspeth Dunn is a poet in her mid-twenties living on Skye who receives a fan letter from a twenty-one year old college man, David Graham, living in Illinois. They strike up a flirtatious correspondence that results in their falling in love, despite the fact that Elspeth is married. When WWI begins, Elspeth’s husband goes off to join the fighting. Soon after, David volunteers as an ambulance driver. Elspeth and David meet for the first time and consummate their emotional affair. Elspeth now has a husband and a lover to worry about at the front.

In addition to the letters between Elspeth and David, there are also letters set during WWII between Elspeth and her daughter, Margaret, and between Margaret and her beau, Paul. Elspeth is concerned that the relationship between Margaret and Paul is progressing too quickly. Then a bomb drops, rattling Elspeth’s home and exposing Elspeth’s hidden letters. Margaret finds one of them, but before she can get any explanation, her mother disappears. Margaret, who remembers nothing about her father and knows nothing about her mother’s past, recognizes that the letters must hold the key.

The stories unfold simultaneously, with chapters shifting back and forth in time. Both Elspeth and David’s relationship and Margaret’s search for answers about the past are engaging narratives, and I didn’t want to put the book down. It’s nicely descriptive of the tension of wartime romance.

Still, when all was said and done, I felt sorry for Elspeth’s husband. And I couldn’t help but wonder why it was somehow OK for Elspeth to have an emotional affair because she used snail mail. If she and Davey had been interacting through Facebook or gmail, it would seem much more tawdry than their poignant, witty, captivating letters. So, as much as I liked the book, it nagged at me that I was rooting for this relationship. I had a mental image of Ann Landers interjecting a letter at the beginning of Elspeth’s story, suggesting that she cease writing to her American stranger and rather focus on rekindling the romance with her husband. Ann would suggest that they get some counseling. The reaction is anachronistic, of course. But if, by today’s moral standards, one should frown on online cheating on one’s spouse, why is it acceptable to consider snail-mail cheating on one’s spouse in 1912 the start of a beautiful love story? And yet, the love story did tug at the heart strings.

If you enjoy epistolary novels and wartime romances, Letters from Skye fits the bill. There is love, friendship, family drama and moral dilemma enough to keep you turning the pages. And then there are questions to think about after the last page is turned. It might make a good book club book.

I’m just going to keep going with the Historical Fiction Challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry. And I have now finished the Library Book Challenge, hosted by Gina at Book Dragon’s Lair! This was a great challenge for me. It really helped me to use the resources of my wonderful local library more.