I remember that, when I was a very small child, my godmother used to travel from her home in Plymouth to the Isle of Skye for her summer holidays every year. And I remember telling her that it was a very, very long way, and her telling me that it was worth it, because there was something magical about Skye.
Maybe it was that memory that drew me towards this book. I’d like to think so, because I think that there is something of that same magic that my godmother found between these pages.
This a story told entirely in letters.
The first of those letters was written by David Graham of Illinois, in March 1912. He wrote to the author of a book of poetry that a friend had given him, telling her poems had really touched him, in a way that the tales of action and adventure that were his usual reading material never had.
Later that month Elspeth Dunn wrote back from the Isle of Skye, telling him of the sensation that a letter from America had caused in the small island post office, and expressing surprise and delight that somebody else in the world had read her verse.
Their correspondence went on – I noticed that both of those letters left ideas dangling that invited a response – and it became important to both of them. They both wrote warm, articulate, interesting letters that were a joy to read, and it was clear that their correspondence was valued by each of them.
There were lovely details, there were glimpses of their lives, and there was also things that went unsaid or undescribed. And so there were things that I could wonder about, and pictures for me to paint in my head.
They might have gone on sending letters back and forth across the Atlantic for years and years, but war came. That changed things ….
And then the story moved forward, to 1940 when the world was at war again. Margaret wrote to her fiancé, a pilot in the RAF, telling him of her concerns about her mother. She had found a cache of old letters but her mother had refused to talk about them. That made Margaret realise how little she knew about her family and about her mother’s past. And when her mother disappeared Margaret decided that she had to find out.
She read the letters. She wrote to the uncle she had never met. And she travelled to the Isle of Skye, to her grandmother’s home.
That cast a different light on what had happened on the war, and on the consequences of David and Elspeth’s relationship.
I warmed to Margaret, and I wanted to find answers just as much as she did.
The story is cleverly and thoughtfully constructed. It’s a little predictable in places, but I really didn’t mind; I felt the same way reading this book that I felt reading a much loved book as a child, and wanting the pieces to fall into place the way that they did.
Which is not to say that everything fell into exactly the right place, that things worked out exactly as I wanted. They didn’t. Because I was reading about real people, who I had come about, whose correspondence had engaged me, completely and utterly.
I’ve purposely avoided details, because if this story appeals you really should learn them all as you read those wonderful, wonderful letters.
And all I’m going to say about the ending is that I had tears in my eyes ….