'Letters from Home' follows the stories of three housemates in Chicago in 1944. Liz Stephens is a literature student, engaged to her childhood sweetheart Dalton, a brilliant law student who is helping to run his father's political campaign. Julia Renard is engaged to Christian, a sailor; she is a talented seamstress and dress designer but when she is offered an internship with Vogue in New York, she turns it down in favour of a future as a wife and mother. Betty Cordell is the good time girl of the group; by day she waits tables in a diner, in the evening she sings with a band at USO dances. Straightaway we see Betty as a vulnerable young woman who thrives on the attention of men, though ultimately she wants to meet a reliable man so she won't end up leading the same kind of life as her mother.
On the eve of their posting to Europe, brothers Morgan and Charlie McClain go to serviceman's dance in Chicago. Charlie charms the reluctant Julia into one dance while Liz reluctantly chats with Morgan; she instantly feels a connection with the stranger and, when Julia takes herself off home, Liz decides to stay a while longer. When she returns from the ladies' room, though, she spots Morgan in Betty's arms and immediately thinks the worst; still it provides a reason for her to forget what happened and she tells herself she loves Dalton and isn't interested in anyone else.
The truth is that Morgan had come to Betty's aid, stepping in when an overly ardent admirer wouldn't leave her alone. Betty, overcome by the episode, passed on her photograph and address and promised to write to her knight in shining armour, unaware that Liz liked him. Not much of a letter writer herself, Betty asks Liz to help her write a letter to Morgan and her friend reluctantly agrees but by the time a reply arrives from the French front, Betty is on her way to the Pacific to volunteer in a field hospital having forgotten all about her temporary hero. Unable to resist, Liz opens the letter and when she sees how much it has obviously meant to Morgan, she continues a correspondence with him, talking about her own life, but always signing off as Betty. She realises that she is falling in love with the soldier but he is in love with Betty, not Liz. How can she ever tell him the truth, and will he forgive her? And can she give up the security and familiarity she has with Dalton for a man she has only really known for a few minutes?
I'll be honest and say that I picked up 'Letters from Home' in a hurry in a discounted book store to make up a three for a fiver bundle. I really wanted the other two books and this one looked 'okay'. I read a lot of fiction set during the Second World War but very little set mainly in the United States and it was interesting to how experiences of those sitting out the war at home there differed from those of British people.
The ways in which the war (and the First World War too) shaped the lives of British women is in stark contrast with the role of women in the United States. In Britain more women went out to work, filling in for the men who had gone to fight; by the time the war was over they had gotten a taste for life outside the domestic realm and many continued to work. In America there wasn't such a need for women to work for the war effort; fewer men were enlisted so the factories and farms were able to keep running without employing women. In this story Betty's decision to volunteer to work in a field hospital (though partly for selfish reasons) is all the more remarkable because most women carried on with life as usual, albeit waiting for their men-folk to return from the war. While British women that lived through the period talk about the war as being a time when they gained a freedom they'd never had before, one can't relate this to the women in this story; for these women the ever present obligations of marriage and motherhood rule their lives.
Kristina McMorris writes about the arena of war as brilliantly as she writes about the domestic sphere and the male characters are as well written as the women. She does a grand job of capturing the banter and bravado of the men as they swap blue rhymes but she also depicts their fear and their longing to be back home, their memories of favourite meals and familiar landscapes. So too she captures the very essence of the two completely different theatres of conflict: the heat of Dutch Guinea felt very real to me and the tension when Morgan and Charlie go on night time reconnaissance missions is electric.
McMorris, a presenter of television shows in the States, was inspired by the wartime correspondence of her grandparents though there are elements of this story that are quite common. So many couples married in haste during the war years; I wonder how many of those couples would have still married had there not been a war. At the end of the war people who barely knew each other were thrown back together and many children were introduced to the fathers they'd never met.
Much in the way that producers of DVDs do, the publisher has produced a handy pictorial guide on the back cover to inform potential readers what kind of novel this is. I didn't like it when I saw it (and I hadn't noticed such a thing on a novel before) and I don't like it now. If I had seen it I wouldn't have bought the book; I'm not a fan of romances and while I shed more than my fair share of tears when reading, I wouldn't necessarily buy a book on the grounds that it's meant to be a tear-jerker. Ultimately it is a romance but to describe it merely as such is to do Kristina McMorris a great injustice; this isn't the grandest of literary endeavours but it is an entertaining and thought-provoking read with well-developed characters, colourful detail and a clever take on the Cyrano de Bergerac theme.
384 pages in paperback. Kindle edition currently available priced at £2.99 (correct in August 2012). Paperback prices vary but Amazon price for new copy is £4.89