Books About Letters: "Things We Didn't Say"
The weather is starting to turn which can only mean one thing: Autumn is en route! It's hard to believe we're coming up on a year of Books About Letters but I haven't lost the excitement of our first contender with this months, "Things We Didn't Say" (November 2020, Bethany House Publishers) by Amy Lynn Green.
In Green's "Things We Didn't Say" we meet our protagonist Johanna, a language student in Minnesota who is recruited by the U.S. Army to work as the translator at the German Prisoner of War (POW) camp in her home town. "Jo" as she's called resents the job offering and despite her desire to move to England and study the classics at Oxford, accepts the mission. Once Jo returns home we're treated to a novel told in epistolary form (think "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society") between a slew of characters. Jo must deal with xenophobia and small-town America politics when she dares to suggest that the Germans in the POW camp are not what they seem.
For the record, I read a lot of historical fiction. So much so that in September of 2020 I was a guest on the Podcast "What Should I Read Next" to talk about finding historical fiction that frankly...wasn't bad. Years of reading real letters has made me quite a snob about historical fiction especially in the "War Years" (WW1 & WW2) but it also makes me viciously hungry for just that. Yes, quite a conundrum. So when I read the synopsis and first chapter of "Things We Didn't Say" I was intrigued.
Green's writing is smooth and suited to the letter. Her characters do my favorite thing about epistolary novels -- exposition in story telling. I love a meta reference to a letter being a letter in a book about letters. Now we talked about the danger for pacing to go haywire, for some length in my review of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society". In Green's novel our protagonist Jo experiences character development and plot development throughout the course of the novel, with Green hinting at the get-go that you are reading not over Jo's shoulder but rather as evidence for a serious infraction raised at the near end of the story. Juicy right?
This book is right up there for letter lovers. The style and punchiness of the story is captivating. And it was so, so refreshing to read a story about interacting with the "enemy" in a non-combative, psychological and emotional way. This book opened my eyes as most good books to a part of the history I live to learn about, which I knew nothing about! I'm thinking here of the enjoyable "Girls on the Line" by Aime K. Runyan, about female telephone operators in WWI, or "Mercy Road" by Ann Howard Creel, about female ambulance drivers again in WWI. In "Things We Didn't Say" we encounter a character employed at a military translation school, only there's a catch: he is a first-generation Japanese American. Anyone familiar with World War II in the U.S. knows that F.D.R established literal concentration camps for Japanese folks living in the U.S. during the War as "they" were worried the interned would be enemies of the State. And in "Things We Didn't Say" Green runs right up to that argument and beats it with sensible, clear headed logic. It is quite frankly, one of my favorite letter reads of 2021 for this shift in perspective.
Having waffled along too long about this brilliant book, I encourage you to give it a look and let me know if you too enjoy this unusual and all-together interesting book about letters.
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