The Lost Art of Letter Writing, Rediscovered in Two Distinct Novels
When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not a birthday card, not a quick note to go with a gift, not an e-mail. An actual letter, with pen, paper, time to reflect, space to be thoughtful and open, share a secret, put your heart onto paper. I’m willing to bet it’s been a long, long time but that the idea of receiving a letter like that is one that makes you happy. There are two great books that have correspondence at their heart: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. In each one, written correspondence is the key to survival, both literal and emotional.
During World War II, German troops occupied the English island of Guernsey off the coast of France as a strategic location. Residents were essentially kept under martial law with little or no access to the rest of the world. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the “society” in the title is created by those trapped on the island in order to meet and discuss plans and survival tactics under the guise of book discussions. (Not sure if you ever thought your book club could save your life, but this one may have for them!) This epistolary novel creates a moving portrait of a little known story during a tragic era; the wartime setting and Nazi occupation provide a level of urgency. Book lovers will also welcome literary references — to Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and, of course, Shakespeare — sprinkled throughout the letters penned by the townsfolk.
Though from a vastly different time, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan also has correspondence at its core. In nineteenth-century China, a seven-year-old girl named Lily is paired with a laotong, “old same,” a far-away stranger who becomes a lifelong friend. Together, Lily and her “pen pal” Snow Flower write secret messages in a special language created by Chinese women to communicate confidentially. The two women correspond into adulthood, sharing the agony of foot binding, the loneliness of arranged marriages, and the joys and anguish of motherhood. The two take comfort from their “talks,” and a soul-sustaining bond is forged -- until a misunderstanding arises, and their deep connection is suddenly threatened. No spoilers here; you’ll have to read this unforgettable story to find out what happens.
Each of these novels is incredibly well researched and provides an intimate snapshot of a past era that will linger with you long after you have finished reading. At your next lunch with friends or book club meeting, ask everyone about the best letter she received or her favorite pen pal. I’m sure you will find that everyone has at least one story and is squirreling away a tattered and worn copy of a precious letter with her most valued possessions.
To note: Recently, special deluxe editions of these books have been released that provide additional background and insights from the author as well as book group guides for discussion. Check them out!