Letters Across the Sea – Looking for a good book as a selection for your next book club meeting? Then I heartily recommend Genevieve Graham’s new historical novel Letters Across the Sea. This is her sixth novel, and its works so well because it uses the elements that make a good piece of historical fiction: tell a well-known or hidden aspect of a nation’s history, and use fictional characters within that context to bring it to life without being too schmaltzy.
The historical focus that dominates Ms. Graham’s latest novel are two rarely heard events in 20th century Canadian history: the anti-Semitic riot at Toronto’s Christie Pits in August of 1933, and the desperate siege that was the Battle of Hong Kong between Canadian and Japanese troops, which led to the tragic surrender by the under equipped and under manned Canadians on Christmas Day, 1941.
Using these two events as her base, Graham paints a fictional narrative where these actual events blend so well into the entire story that she wants to tell the reader.
The first part takes place in Toronto during the summer of 1933, in which the Queen City is in the grips of the worst of the Great Depression, and where anti-Semitism unfortunately runs rampant throughout the streets of its downtown core. Molly Ryan is a young woman in a large Irish family in which her father is an officer for the Toronto police department. She has dreams of being a writer, but has to quit school to work and make some extra money to support her family; she eventually ends up with a job at Eaton’s department store, where the work is hard and the pay is low, but a paying job is a paying job no matter what it is or where during the Great Depression.
Her closest friend is Hannah Dreyfus, who is part of a sizeable Jewish family where her father runs a clothing factory and is deeply involved with the garment workers’ union. The only bright spot that the two friends enjoy in Depression-ridden Toronto is the regularly schedule amateur baseball games that are played between community teams in the neighbourhood. And one of the bright spots of the baseball games is watching Max, Hannah’s attractive brother, who amazes Molly and the rest of the spectators with his prowess on the diamond, which makes him a virtual local celebrity.
However, that friendship fabric unravels following the Christie Pits Riot, when members of a group called the Swastika Club unveiled the hated Nazi symbol following a baseball game that featured the team that Max played for, and a full scale violent altercation erupted as a result. And the division between the Ryan and Dreyfus families get even deeper when Hannah’s father is accused of throwing a brick that hits Molly’s father in the head and seriously injures him. The Riot revealed the ugly side of the city’s history during that difficult period.
The second part of the story takes place between 1940 and 1945. Molly gets a job at the venerable Toronto Star, and becomes a star reporter thanks to her empathetic-laced articles, especially one that focuses one the desperate homeless population of the city, which gains her the respect of the Star’s famous editor-in-chief Earl Hindmarsh, and becomes the object of the affections of Ian Collins, a senior reporter who later gets promoted to assistant editor. Max goes to Queen’s University to study medicine and later becomes a doctor.
But when the Second World War breaks out, both the Dreyfus and Ryan families are caught up in the whirlwind. Max enlists in the army as a medic, and he – along with his brother-in-law David and Molly’s brother Richie – are shipped off to Hong Kong, believing that it would be just simple garrison duty because they believe the Japanese troop strength there is minimal at best; however, they sadly underestimate that fact, and are caught up in the violent fighting in their unsuccessful defense of Hong Kong (and is told in haunting detail), which ends up in their surrender and experiencing some of the most torturous conditions in some of the worst Japanese controlled POW camps in the South Pacific.
While Max and Richie are listed as missing in action, Molly tries her journalistic best to find out what happened to him and her brother during the desperate siege in Hong Kong. While at the same time, she becomes engaged to Ian, and plan to have their much-delayed wedding by Christmas of 1945. However, during a press event at the popular King Edward Hotel for a series of articles about Canadian soldiers who survived the hell in the Pacific as POWs, she gets the surprise of her life, especially how a long-kept letter describes what happened to her brother Richie during the Battle of Hong Kong.
Letters Across the Sea is a novel that has its equal share of a good story entwined with hidden historical fact, plus a little romance that would fit well in a black and white feature film from the early and mid-40s. But Ms. Graham does the reader a valuable service with a 15-page “note” that deftly explains the historical events that are accurately portrayed in the book. It not only sparks the reader’s interest in reading more about the Christie Pits Riot and the Battle of Hong Kong, and puts the book’s narrative into its proper context, but also shows the depth of research she undertook to ensure the book’s historical accuracy.
Historical novels, if written and researched properly, can give the reader the double-barrelled feeling of being entertained and informed at the same time (not to mention provoke a lot of interesting discussions with your book club). And Letters Across the Sea accomplishes both with flying colours.