Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Letter Perfect

Share |

A Saturday-morning conversation still lingers on a Monday morning, a steady hum in the background that doesn’t seek my immediate attention but says, with a quiet insistence, “Take note.” Take note of Joel’s story. The one about the letters.

In the short time we had while our daughters signed up for a driver’s ed course, Joel told me about an aunt who lived in Holland during the second world war. He knew of my interest in the Holocaust, knew that I had adapted Karen Levine’s Hana’s Suitcase for the stage. An aunt -- his father’s brother’s wife – and her sister were in hiding during the war. During that time they wrote dozens of letters to their parents. The letters were long forgotten, until they resurfaced a few years ago. Joel’s aunt, of course, is no longer the young, persecuted Jewish girl she once was. The letters she wrote speak to a particular time and a particular place, the voice of an individual that illuminates a moment in history on a small-scale. It’s the ‘smallness’ of personal correspondence, the descriptions of daily life (and fears and hopes) that makes their impact so significant. In the right context and in the right hands, letters are a form of literature.

A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters was first staged in 1988. I’ll poach from Wikipedia, which notes that “the play centers on just two characters, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III. Using the epistolary form sometimes found in novels, they sit side by side at tables and read the notes, letters and cards - in which over nearly 50 years, they discuss their hopes and ambitions, dreams and disappointments, victories and defeats - that have passed between them throughout their separated lives.”

“Hopes and ambitions, dreams and disappointments” sounds like lazy copy for an ad for the play but it does hint at the scope a series of letters can reach, particularly those shared over a lifetime. If the wartime letters of two young girls in Holland offer us a glimpse of what life was like for one family (and, thus, for many) a single letter from one soldier can capture the mood of a nation at war with itself, and capture that same nation’s imagination almost 130 years later. It was written on July 14, 1861 by Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah and was featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War.

"I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death — and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee."

Novelist Richard B. Wright’s acclaimed (as in Governor-General’s award and Giller Prize) Clara Callan is told entirely through letters and diary entries exchanged between small-town Clara and her New York-based sister Nora during the Depression.

Saturday, November 3 (8:10 p.m.)

Nora left for New York City today. I think she is taking a terrible chance going all the way down there but, of course, she wouldn't listen. You can't tell Nora anything. You never could. Then came the last-minute jitters. Tears in that huge station among strangers and loudspeaker announcements.
"I'm going to miss you, Clara."
"Yes. Well, and I'll miss you too, Nora. Do be careful down there!"
"You think I'm making a mistake, don't you? I can see it in your face."
"We've talked about this many times, Nora. You know how I feel about all this."
"You must promise to write."
"Well, of course, I'll write."

Clara writes. But if we were to fast-forward to 2010, Nora would surely say, “And you’ll e-mail me at least once a day?” To which Clara would vow to Twitter, as well and Skype and post pictures on Facebook.

Which begs the question: wither letters as a literary form? Not only letters crafted by writers like Wright and Gurney but those penned by two sisters whose experience of the Holocaust is chronicled with each signed and sealed envelope. Letters that bear witness to a time and place in ways that are unmediated, letters that dissolve the barriers between then and now so that we can practically smell a war or wedding on the page.

It’s hard to imagine an e-mail capturing a sense of time and place as effectively as a letter. To be sure, e-mail messages can carry their own power. You need only read the notes sent by those trapped inside the World Trade Center to know that a few sentences can carry enormous weight. But by and large, e-mail correspondence doesn’t lend itself to depth or reflection. Those messages that do are the exceptions that prove the rule, the rule being make it quick and to the point (and don’t bother with spelling or punctuation). And, really, how many of us save and store e-mail messages the way one might keep a letter that lands in one's lap, in which handwriting and the very paper the letter is written on tell their own stories.

Technology always comes at a price. What is impossible to measure is the value of the letters that will never be written, the details that will be discarded on their way to the in-box, the vivid and telling descriptions that become the victims of a 140-character count.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page