Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: Carolyn Hart's Letter From Home

Dear Carolyn,

I was struggling with how to write about Letter From Home, the first book of yours that I’ve read, though published ten years ago and one of fifty now to your credit, and then it came to me: I’d write you a letter.
My connection to you began because of something you said at the Malice Domestic Convention XXV, which happened earlier this month.  You were receiving the Amelia award for a lifetime contribution to the mystery community, and you’d already won three Agathas, had nine nominations for them, and been Guest of Honor (1997, Malice IX) and won the Lifetime Achievement award (2007, XIX).  During the interview you quietly said:  “Write what works for you and reflects you.  Don’t write to a trend.  Write what you want to write.”

Afterwards, I emailed you that I’d appreciated your saying that and sent you my blog address, where I’d posted my Malice report and quoted you.  You responded very quickly and said you’d like to link to my blog report from your website’s Malice page.  I’d also told you that I, too, had graduated from the University of Oklahoma, in 1959.  You wrote back that you graduated in 1958 in Journalism, so that we were contemporaries.

My first mystery was published last year, Killer Frost, and your first was published years ago, yet you treated me so respectfully, as a comrade.  Letter From Home had been mentioned in the interview with Katherine Hall Page.  It won you a best novel Agatha in 2004.  I was struck by its being set in 1944, the year, at age six, when I moved with my mother and younger sister to Norman, Oklahoma, where O.U. is located.  Your novel’s heroine and amateur detective, Gretchen Grace Gilman, is thirteen, and she lives in another small Oklahoma town.  

In 1944 I was very aware of the War.  My daddy was a Navy Chaplain in the Pacific.  My mother worked for the YWCA on the campus.  She sat at her typewriter and wrote to Daddy every day.  I didn’t know much about the bigger world in Norman, but I learned, when my mother brought home two Negro women at lunchtime during a Y conference on the campus, that Norman was a sundown town, and Negroes weren’t allowed in town after dark, nor were there any restrooms for them on campus or in town.  My mother, in fact, through the Y, worked toward the Separate but Equal judgment, which the Supreme court made before the 1954 Desegregation decision, which allowed Lois Sipuel to enter O.U. Law School, though she had to sit behind a screen.  

This early experience of racial injustice led me to a lifetime involvement with righting that wrong, but of the complex politics and social behavior of the small town I lived in, I had little idea.  Your book stirred memories though.  The song “Mairsie Doats” [“Mares eat oats”] which I loved, was one from that period.  I was not, however, thrust into the dark side of some of the consequences of that war as Gretchen was.
I like this book because of its “real people struggling with real passion,” your phrase in your essay for the big Malice XXV memory book, of why Malice was begun.  That’s what the traditional mystery was all about.  Not blood and guts.  Not explicit sex.  I found in the pages of your book a deeply human reality–the whole human comedy in the sense of the complete picture, good and bad, of those who people and run this little town.  There are plenty of folks who reject those who are different, as the woman Faye Tatum was rejected, being an artist and going to dances while her husband served in the war.  A crowd mentality comes into being fast once the word is out that the killer is at large and armed.  

Then there are the characters who challenge this small-mindedness, this tendency to condemn and rush to judgment based on fear and well before all the facts are known.  The Gazette’s editor, Walt Dennis, the police chief Frazer, Mrs. Jacobs, Gretchen’s junior high English teacher, who sends Gretchen to Dennis to apply for a reporter job, and especially Gretchen’s grandmother, Lotte Pfizer, who always sees the human beings in whatever situation, and keeps kindness, love, courage, and forgiveness front and center, for herself and for Gretchen.

All the characters are quite vivid and real, but Gretchen is the most remarkable of all to me. There she is, thirteen, asking for job because a reporter has been called up for military service, and she is already a good writer.  Mr. Dennis is rejecting–doesn’t want a girl or one so young, but he reads her “clips,” and says he’ll give her a try.  Then we witness a transformation as Gretchen slips into her new role with relative ease, also learning more about the background of her friend  Barb’s mother’s murder than the police, sheriff, or the main reporter do.

Gretchen is thrust into adulthood, doing a job made harder because Gretchen had liked Faye Tatum and worries about Barb, who is taking it hard, and also about her grandmother, who runs the Victory Café and is overworking and looking ill.  Editor Dennis comes to depend on Gretchen.  Yet she still has the child’s bewilderment, self-doubt, impulsiveness (she sneaks out at night; she doesn’t tell anyone the key information she has learned).

We also have the grandmother’s strong faith and compassion set side by side with the minister’s self-righteousness and pompous assumption that Faye must have sinned.

Throughout the book there is an understated drama of “extraordinary events in ordinary lives,” which one author at Malice said was what the traditional mystery was all about.  The characters’ dilemmas tug at our feelings.  The murder grows out of a tangle of normal and understandable human emotions.  As the book progresses, the reader feels “something is wrong with this picture,” but only at the end do we and Gretchen learn what, in fact, did happen.  I love the way Gretchen persists in doing her job, following her conscience, summoning her courage to write the truth, and taking in stride both her rejection for doing so by other teens, and the praise coming from her editor.

Thank you, Carolyn, for giving us such a book and for emphasizing how important it is to write out of our inner selves, what we know to be true and good and also what we know to be wrong and a disservice to the better part of our human nature.

Another author discovered your wisdom before you and I were born, and her words helped me as I was finding my way as a writer, fifty years ago, and these words still do help me, as did your reminder.  Sadly, this seems often a forgotten truth these days in the larger publishing world.
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.  But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.” Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, p. 110, published in 1929, still in print.

Thank you, Carolyn.  

Sincerely, Judy Hogan

Carolyn Hart’s website has lots of information about her books, awards, and some Malice reports and photos.

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