STAFF PUBLICATIONS: Letters from Skye
Letters from Skye is a love story told in letters, a favorite form in English novels since the 17th century, which draws us into the lives of the correspondents. Asked why she chose this format, Jessica Brockmole says, “I started writing letters as an exercise in dialogue… and a way to get to know my characters. I had just moved to the UK and was transitioning into what was, in a real sense, an epistolary relationship with friends and family in the States. With phone calls expensive and webcams not available, communication was written: emails, instant messaging and, yes, letters and postcards.
“I was fascinated by what could be said in a letter and what could be understood in the spaces between, by the agony of a delayed letter and the excitement of one delivered just in time, by imagining the conversation-taking place between lines on the page. Just as I had to put so much of myself into each message home, so do the characters in Letters from Skye.“
When David Graham, an American college student, writes to Scottish poet Elspeth Dunn in 1912, he feels a bit presumptuous—a thrice-published author deserves more eloquent praise than his—but it seems important to acknowledge the power of her words.
Elspeth Dunn is not the sophisticate David first imagines, however. She is a lonely young woman who has never left her home on Skye, an island off the coast of Scotland. This is Elspeth’s first fan mail and, touched by David’s sincerity, she responds. Their first letters are light and gently teasing but, as David and Elspeth begin to trust each other, they share their dreams and, in time, begin to fall in love. Because each fills the other’s need to be understood, the letters become an essential part of their lives.
There is no sense of impending war—until 1915. Brockmole explains: “As I researched Skye during the First World War, I was struck with its isolation, its self-sense of not being involved in such a distant war. The Battle of Festubert in 1915, where most of the British casualties were men from Skye and the Western Isles, changed that. From 600 miles away, Skye felt the war keenly.” In the same year, the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat brought war home to the United States and, while Congress clung to isolationism, men like David Graham volunteered for service in Europe.
When David joins a volunteer ambulance corps, he and Elspeth plan to meet before he goes to France—they have begun to dream of a life together—but there are obstacles to be overcome. As their fortunes ebb and flow, the letters become scattered, out of order; some we fear, remained unread.
Elspeth’s daughter’s letters begin in 1940. Margaret is in love and, although she knows nothing of her mother’s history, she gives the matter little thought. Brockmole says, “I think when we’re content, we tend not to question or doubt. At least that’s true for Margaret, who accepts what her mother tells her: “The first volume of my life is out of print.’”
When Elspeth disappears, it’s as if someone we have known for years stops writing. Margaret, concerned, searches Elspeth’s empty house for clues to her mother’s whereabouts, but all she has to go on is a letter from a man she never knew existed. What happened to the woman who packed away her dreams with a bundle of letters? As the novel continues, Elspeth’s and David’s own words reveal the depth of the relationship between two strangers a world apart.
Letters from Skye is a lovely tale, well told. Highly recommended.