I have mentioned before that one of my favorite things about attending the annual Golden Crown Literary Society Conference is meeting and discovering new authors. The conference this year was held in Dallas, TX back in June. Political crap aside, I love Texas. I lived there for 6 years while attending TCU and earning my B.S. and M.S. degrees. I was sad to leave after that 2nd graduation.
A highlight of the conference this year was meeting Sandra Moran. She’s friendly, she’s charming, and she’s a Moran. My great-great-grandmother was a Moran, so I feel a connection to anyone with that name. (Realizing, of course, that it is a very common Irish name and there is very likely no true ancestral connection…but still.) It was quite a pleasure talking with Sandra and learning about her debut novel, Letters Never Sent. She had some advance copies at the conference so, of course, I had to buy one. More conversation ensued when I read the back cover to discover that much of the novel takes place in 1930s Chicago. My grandmother grew up in Chicago during that time. Now I knew I’d have to read it.
Letters Never Sent (Bedazzled Ink) tells the story of three women – Katherine and Annie, and Katherine’s daughter, Joan. From the back cover:
Three women, united by love and kinship, struggle to conform to the social norms of the times in which they lived.
In 1931, Katherine Henderson leaves behind her small town in Kansas and the marriage proposal of a local boy to live on her own and work at the Sears & Roebuck glove counter in Chicago. There she meets Annie—a bold, outspoken feminist who challenges Katherine’s idea of who she thinks she is and what she thinks she wants in life.
In 1997, Katherine’s daughter, Joan, travels to Lawrence, Kansas, to clean out her estranged mother’s house. Hidden away in an old suitcase, she finds a wooden box containing trinkets and a packet of sealed letters to a person identified only by a first initial.
Joan reads the unsent letters and discovers a woman completely different from the aloof and unyielding mother of her youth–a woman who had loved deeply and lost that love to circumstances beyond her control. Now she just has to find the strength to use the healing power of empathy and forgiveness to live the life she’s always wanted to live.
The first thing to draw me to this book – besides getting to meet Moran – was the cover. It’s beautiful. The images reminded me of some of the pictures I have of my grandmother and her cousins during that time period. The faded letter to “Dearest A” provides a poignant background for the images. It’s wonderfully balanced. It’s evocative. So wonderful.
The novel begins rather conventionally – Joan is at her mother’s house in 1997 following Katherine’s death. We learn about snippets of Joan’s relationship with her mother via Joan’s own reflection and Joan’s conversations with Mrs. Yoccum, Katherine’s next door neighbor. This opening chapter helps to set the stage for the ensuing interwoven stories. Katherine was not a happy woman – hard, harsh, haggard. Her relationship with her daughter was just as harsh. Not wanting to be in her mother’s house, but knowing that affairs need to be set in order, Joan takes on the difficult task of getting the house and its contents ready for sale. During her search for her mother’s photos, Joan comes across a suitcase at the back of Katherine’s closet – a suitcase she hadn’t seen since she was a very small girl. Curiosity piqued, she picks the lock to discover pieces from her mother’s life – a life she never realized Katherine had lived. Rather than finding answers to her questions, Joan is presented with shocking glimpses into the part of the mother she never knew and, of course, even more questions. Now, the real story begins.
Since I have a strict “no spoilers” rule, I will not delve more deeply into the story. That does not, however, mean there isn’t a lot to say about Letters Never Sent.
Let me start by discussing the structure of the novel. The story moves back and forth through time as we get to learn more about Katherine, Annie, and Joan. Joan’s part of the story is rooted firmly in 1997 as she reads the letters her mother wrote – but never sent – and learns more about her mother’s life through conversations with Mrs. Yoccum. Katherine’s and Annie’s story, however, spans the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Having read many novels (and seeing many movies) that move back and forth between storylines and time periods, I’m aware of the traps and pitfalls that can occur. Moran avoids each trap and every pitfall. She guides us seamlessly through the decades and unravels the conjoined stories smoothly and subtly. At no point did I have to backtrack to determine just where I was in the story – I always instinctively knew, even without reading the “timestamps” at the beginning of each chapter. That, my friends, is talent.
Letters Never Sent is about 300 pages long. That’s a pretty hefty novel. But I will tell you this: Not a single word of this novel needs to be cut. We’ve all read books that seem to go on and on; often we think, “Well, there’s a scene that just wasn’t necessary.” As we continue reading, we find the places to skim through because we just don’t find them essential to the story. Such is not the case with Letters Never Sent. Every word is there for a reason; every scene is essential to the story.
Let’s talk a little about those words and scenes. Moran’s writing lends itself so wonderfully to descriptive narrative. She sets the scene beautifully. Having lived in the Chicago suburbs for a good number of years – and having heard my grandmother and mother talk about Chicago in the 20s through the 60s – I’m always a little leery when stories are set here. Invariably, the author gets something wrong. Not so here. Moran clearly did her research! Aahh…how refreshing. The descriptions of the streets, trolleys, trains, buildings, etc. throughout Chicago were delightfully vivid and accurate. Having seen pictures of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair (my grandmother still had her program), I was able to clearly picture everything as Katherine, Annie, and Claire wandered through the exhibits. Katherine’s mother’s reaction to the smells of the city had me chuckling. Sometimes, I think the same thing whenever I go into the Loop.
If you’ve ever read one of my reviews, you know I’m a sucker for well-developed, three-dimensional characters. Moran’s characters don’t disappoint. Each is distinct – there’s never a chance of getting the characters “mixed up” while reading. (I hate it when that happens – the characters are so similar, or so one-dimensional, that it’s difficult to keep track of who is who.) What’s even more delightful is how Moran’s characters change and grow throughout the story. It’s very clear how each and every choice made by these women is delicately folded into who they are and how they’ve changed. Like a good meringue, if the ingredients are not blended together properly, the end result is flat. These characters are anything but flat.
This is a story of struggle and heartbreak. It’s a story of love and loss. This story is “real” – it’s not fancified or glorified in any way. The characters are not bigger than life nor are they leading exceptional, unexpected lives. These women could have been our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, our aunts. It’s a story of three women making their way through life, dealing with cultural and social mores – sometimes raging against them, other times reluctantly confirming to them. While these women are not our contemporaries, we can still relate to them on so many levels. Therein lies so much of the beauty of Letters Never Sent. It’s so much more than a novel about three women, their lives, their choices, their loves, and their losses. It’s also a study – historical, anthropological, ethnographic – of society and gender. Personally, I firmly believe this should be required reading in college course on Gender and Society.
So, here’s what it comes down to: Get this book. Read this book. Savor this book. Open yourself to the joys and heartbreak found between the book’s covers. Let them get deep inside you. Trust me, you won’t regret it.