Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran (2013) was a really good book; it was well-written and an engaging story. I very much enjoyed it, and I’m glad I read it. However, the setting wasn’t really that important to the story. I’m reading my way across the USA, with a focus on books that really help me to understand a particular state, its people, its geography, and its history. Unfortunately, this one didn’t do that–for Kansas (which I’m working on now), or even for Illinois.
Its setting is split between Chicago, Illinois and Lawrence and Big Springs, Kansas. However, it really could have been set in any large city and a small town and city some distance away–New York City and somewhere in New Jersey or Pennsylvania; Seattle and somewhere further inland in Washington. Most small towns are more conservative than big cities, and that, plus the anonymity of the big city versus the community aspects (both good and bad) of a small town, are the keys to the setting in this book.
“Ah,” Annie said. “Reinvention. That’s the beauty of moving someplace new. You can be whomever you want.”
“I know what I want. But you want something that’s not yours to have.”
These two quotes, and the juxtaposition between wanting something different than those around you seem satisfied with or settling for what your family wants for you–because, after all, they only want what’s best for you, right?–are at the heart of the unconventional love story in Letters Never Sent. With, perhaps, another element mixed in–does what’s best for you change when there are children involved?
We used to hear about couples who stayed together, “for the children,” either to be sure they were well-provided for, or to give them a “stable environment,” but I think we’ve come to realize that the toxicity of such a relationship can actually be worse for these children than the instability and uncertainty of a divorce.
Joan, the adult daughter of Katherine and Clyde Spencer, is the product of (an extreme version of) this kind of relationship, and is also trying to negotiate her own (much less extreme) version of it. Perhaps the conclusion she reaches, that, “being a mother means making mistakes. And, being the child means forgiving those mistakes,” gives some comfort, both for the parent and the (adult) child.
Mainly, Joan discovers she never really knew her mother (or father) at all, and learning more about Katherine’s life and great love (who was not Joan’s father) brings her understanding and peace–and the ability to extend that forgiveness. Katherine, in discovering what it is that she really wants, also discovers the extent of her own bravery and her reluctance to truly break with her family and society’s expectations–for the sake of her family as much as or more than for her own sake.
Overall, the book was extremely well-written, but I did have a slight quibble with the author–there were one or two times when I felt that an occurrence was far too much of a deus ex machina–too much of a coincidence to be believable–so much so that it jarred me out of my reading. Once, in particular, when an event meant that Joan never actually had to make the decision that she’d been grappling with for most of her part of the book, it really felt like a cop-out on the author’s part.
The other thing I wondered about was how believable was Joan’s shift in attitude and understanding toward her mother? We, as readers, I think, come to a much more full understanding of Katherine, but Joan doesn’t have the advantage of reading the portions of the story that are told from Katherine’s point of view. All Joan has is the letters, a few mysterious (and bellicose) statements from her Uncle Bud, and, eventually, the bare bones of the story from Mrs. Yoccum. However, I think Moran did a wonderful job weaving all these threads together and making sure not to drop any, so I’m going to go with the suspension of disbelief encouraged by a really good writer, and not second-guess this too much!
Despite the fact that the setting was not integral to the story, there were some wonderful descriptions that I want to include. Have you every heard an icy, cold winter’s morning described as “brittle”? Moran takes that one step further with, “It’s so cold it feels like the air could break,” when describing a winter morning in Chicago. And then there’s this lovely description of the city versus the country/small town:
Chicago was a constant, ever-changing noisy hive of activity. But Lawrence, with its small town atmosphere, was like an old friend who never changed. She felt simultaneously relaxed and claustrophobic.
This wonderful description gets right to the heart of things for someone who wants something more or different from their life than what is expected in a small town.
There were two other quotes that I marked that get close to what I’m looking for in a book for my challenge, and if they had been fleshed-out more this book would have been a winner for setting as well as story.
“You can’t not be Christian where I’m from,” Katherine said.
Have you ever been to Kansas?” She didn’t wait for Annie to respond. “It’s nothing like what most people think. It’s not flat—at least not my part. There are lots of trees and hills.”
From our other reading for Kansas, we know that Lawrence (and Big Springs) is in or close to the Flint Hills of Kansas, so we understand this comment, but if we hadn’t read those other books, or visited or grown up there, we likely wouldn’t understand, and Moran doesn’t really give us any more than that.
Katherine also makes this comment about Big Springs:
“It’s just a small farm town,” Katherine said. “It was a watering stop on the Oregon trail, which is where it gets its name.”
Now, in First Dawn by Judith Miller, the group of settlers stops at a spring on their journey to Nicodemus, and, at first I thought this might be the same place (in Miller’s book it’s never named). But Big Springs is actually east of Topeka, where Miller’s group starts their westward journey. (After a bit more research, I think Miller is describing Waconda Spring.) So I was left wanting a bit more description from Moran.
Oh! And… (drumroll, please!) Moran includes a BIRD!!
In the distance, two bobwhites called to each other.
Sorry if that’s a little overly dramatic, but it seems like forever since we’ve had a good bird sighting in one of our books! (Not that this is a great one, but, hey, it’s a specific species, not just a “hawk circling lazily” or an owl in the night or something!) And we get to add it to our Life List of Birds in Books for Kansas!
Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran is one of those books that I might never have read if I hadn’t been doing this challenge and looking for books set in Kansas. And, while its Kansas setting is not integral to the story, I am glad that I read it. It’s a wonderful and unconventional historical love story.