By Jessica Brockmole
Ballantine, July 2013
About the Book
A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
March 1912. Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
June 1940. At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.
Sparkling with charm and full of captivating period detail, Letters from Skye is a testament to the power of love to overcome great adversity, and marks Jessica Brockmole as a stunning new literary voice.
Jessica Brockmole’s novel, set in the UK during both the first and second World Wars, follows a published poet, Elspeth Dunn, who lives on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland, and her American fan, David Graham, as they develop a pen-pal relationship across the miles. Written completely as letters, the book first follows Elspeth and David through the early days of WWI. The two could not be more different. Elspeth is an unhappily married woman living in a remote area of the world, while David is a carefree college student living in Illinois when they begin their correspondence. They share thoughts, dreams, and eventually love as they correspond against the backdrop of war. Elspeth is caught in the middle—the wife of a distant husband who is now a soldier at the front and the lover of an ambulance driver volunteering in the midst of battle.
The book then joins Elspeth’s daughter Margaret and Margaret’s sweetheart and RAF pilot, Paul, during WWII. Margaret longs to know more about her secretive mother and the true identity of her father when, as the WWII bombings of London begin, she stumbles across a suitcase of yellowed letters her mother has kept for decades. Following the trail, Margaret unravels her mother’s previous life, her lost love, and the secret of her own paternity.
This is a touching story of love, loss, and life in the midst of war. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of an introverted woman who had big dreams but had never left her remote island with the cocky, idealistic American college student who was never quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. Across miles, cultures, and battlefields, Elspeth and David are dreamers who find their soul mate in an unlikely person during a turbulent time.
Margaret, sheltered from her mother’s regrets and kept from her mother’s family, wants to uncover the past. In Margaret’s letters to Paul, the reader sees her grow up as war and her mother’s past affect how she lives her own life. The descriptions of distant Skye, somewhere most of us will never get the chance to visit, are really interesting and act as a buffer to Elspeth against the chaos that exists both in her personal life and on the battlefields of Europe.
This book is very readable; I read it in a single weekend. I think reading it makes you miss the days when letters were far more common than they are today. Email seems too fast and informal to capture the emotional connection that letters allowed. This book illustrates just how strong those emotions were by showing us a relationship that was mostly based on an exchange of letters. I highly recommend this book, both as an unusual glimpse into two world wars but also as a look at the triumph of love in letter form.