An Epistolary Book Flight

There’s something intimate about reading letters. When we write them, we give permanence to what has previously been in our minds and hearts, and when we read them, we get a peak into the feelings others. I’m guessing that’s what makes epistolary novels so engaging – connections built on the pieces of self we see embedded in each missive.

Here are five of my favorite epistolary novels:

Love, Mary Elisabeth by Christy Martenson

Set in the Pacific Northwest, this  charming novel is reminiscent of the Dear America books I so loved in grade school. Instead of diary entries, Love, Mary Elisabeth is comprised of letters written by eleven-year-old Mary Elisabeth and a few of her family members. Mary Elisabeth is a city (Seattle) girl who goes to live with relatives on a farm while her mother recovers from tuberculosis and her Papa works in the shipyards.

Christy has captured the joy of a childhood spent navigating the triumphs and trials of country life that is so captivating in classics like Understood Betsy and Up A Road Slowly. Sometimes I find young narrators to be grating, but Mary Elisabeth’s youth is full of believable innocence without being saccharine. I can’t wait to read this gem with my kids. The pretty cover and inside sketches are a wonderful bonus with the paperback!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Guernsey has so much to recommend itself. The plot centers around a writer, Juliet, who receives a letter from a stranger that catapults her into the middle of an off-beat society formed on the island of Guernsey during the German occupation in WWII. I love historical fiction about WWII and this offered a setting and events I wasn’t familiar with previously. Plus, the letters are written by a cast of colorful characters who have unique voices that are witty and endearing. Having so many people writing letters can get a wee bit confusing but keeps the novel moving and interesting. The love story is sweet but doesn’t dominate the narrative. I feel like I’m rambling about this book, but I thought it was lovely and re-read worthy.

Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay

I’ve said it before, Katherine Reay is a master at integrating classic literature into original plot lines and Dear Mr. Knightley is my favorite. The title alone would convince the likes of me that it was worth reading – because who can pass up a nod to Austen (and Emma for that matter)? – but Dear Mr. Knightley can stand alone with it’s nuanced plot that is both charming and poignant. Plus, she gives a nod to epistolary forerunners like Lady Susan and Evelina

The story centers around Sam, a twenty-three year old orphan who is back at Grace House after getting fired from her desk job. When an anonymous benefactor offers to fund her continued education, Sam reluctantly applies to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. There’s a catch: on top of her doubts about the program, she must write regular letters to the mysterious donor who chooses to be addressed as Mr. Knightley. A unique relationship develops as Sam begins to sort through her painful past in the one-sided letters. (You can read my more lengthy review here.)

If that description reminds you of Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster (another wonderful epistolary classic), you’d be right in seeing similarities!

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

The work of C. S. Lewis is important to my spiritual growth and The Screwtape Letters is no exception. Sometimes you have to hear truths from a different perspective to have them sink in and that’s what The Screwtape Letters did for me. The slim novel is comprised of correspondence between a more seasoned devil, Screwtape, and his young nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape gives advice on how best to derail Wormwood’s “patient.” With his characteristic wit, creativity, and faith, Lewis explores good and evil, temptation and grace.

My family readThe Screwtape Letters around the dinner table over the course of a few weeks when I was in late middle school. It took me a few letters to wrap my mind around it being written from a devil’s perspective. I had to keep reminding myself that “the Enemy” wasn’t referring to Satan but God. But because I had to pay a bit more attention to keep things straight, I found the story/message more impactful.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

What would happen if it were illegal to use an increasingly large number of the letters in our alphabet? Ella and the residents of Nollop find out when the island’s council bans the use of letters as they mysteriously drop from a memorial statue commemorating the author of the phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” which contains all the letters of the alphabet. The letters written in the book contain the alphabet restrictions being laid on the citizens of Nollop.

Ella Minnow Pea is lots of fun for the English Major type or those who love words. It’s also an interesting reflection on freedom of expression, fear mongering, and totalitarian government.

What’s your favorite epistolary novel?

A book flight is a curated sampling of reading material that shares some defining quality: theme, setting, time frame, subject matter, etc. Like a beverage flight, the samples are selected with care and presented together intentionally with the purpose of expanding the sampler’s horizons, developing literary discernment, and encouraging reflection and analysis as she considers, compares, and contrasts each book.

Dear Jane Austen {31 Days of Letters}

Dear Ms. Austen,

You have an uncanny skill – a skill not often replicated among authors.  You  craft words into narrative that speaks volumes about a woman’s heart, no matter what century she lived in.   Simple greetings and common gestures become insightful social commentary with help from your quick wit and expert prose.

Even your earlier work, the juvenilia as scholars now call it, is masterful and engaging.  Your Lady Susan, a work composed solely of letters, rivals the prowess of Frances Burney in Evelina.  Although, I do wish you had finished The Watsons.  What was to become of the love triangle between Lady Osborne, Mr. Howard, and Emma?  I will forever be hanging on Mr. Watson’s fate.

Emma, however, is my favorite of your novels.  It is the perfect example of how you balance social commentary and narrative.  To an unsuspecting reader, your novels are a pleasant look into a place or person.  For those who look deeper, they are a running appraisal of life.  From the surface, Emma seems to revolve around the heroine’s matchmaking skills, but the true meat of your story lies in one person’s preoccupation with the advantages of herself in comparison to others.

I’m particularly drawn to Emma as a character, and a novel, because I share many of the same faults as the heroine.  But, through Emma, you give me hope that my pride and propensity to judge others can be tempered.

You pit Emma’s advantages against Mr. Knightley’s superior, albeit wise and kind, social values.  Mr. Knightley is able to see Emma in a realistic light, exposing her imperfections and loving her in spite of them.  With his consistent love and steady correction, Emma begins to see beyond her own advantages in life.

Mr. Knightley is the perfect foil for Emma’s inherent loftiness.  The spirit of what you’ve created in Mr.Knightley’s character, is echoed in my community – community with Christ and community with friends and family.  It often takes the patient prodding of others to promote candid appraisal of my Emma-like qualities.

After reading all of your novels, your letters and scripts, your unfinished works, I am all the more intrigued by you, Ms. Austen.  Just like I find myself in many of your heroine’s, you must put a bit of yourself in each one as well.  Since I can’t meet you in person, I immerse myself into your world, your life, your mind via the written word.

Every revisiting comes with new discovery.  I keep reading.



Below are some photos from my trip to Bath – a prominent setting in Jane Austen’s novels and a vacation spot Austen enjoyed frequently.

At the Roman Baths {Bath, UK}
Assembly rooms and Bath Cathedral


You can find all my letters here.

For more information about the 31 Day Challenge, visit The Nester.

Dear Jen Hatmaker {31 Days of Letters}

Dear Jen Hatmaker,

You are many things that I am not.  You are a fierce Texan, mother of five, and published author many times over.  I, on the other hand, am a loyal Californian living in Idaho, hoping to get past my one year anniversary without a little Gardner on the way, and only in my dreams have a published book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

Differences aside, we could (and should) be friends.  Within the first few pages of 7, I realized we were cut out of the same cloth, which just so happens to be a burlap coffee sack.  By the time I finished – and by finished, I  mean laughed, commiserated, and gave a hearty Amen! – the first chapter, I was doubly convinced that we would get along.  Coffee, ahem.. caffeine, is a pretty strong agent for community, wouldn’t you say?

Your reflections from Day 19 proved that I was not alone in the world.  You may not have every jot and tittle of your books on immediate recall, so permit me to quote you:

I escaped narrowly by chewing gum like a quitting smoker.  I should tell you that every time I’ve been in Sprouts, I’ve put my nose directly on the glass cases of bulk coffee beans and inhaled like a deranged weirdo. I mean, deeply inhaled.  For at least ten seconds.  Nose to the glass.  The only possible way I could act more disturbing is if I ground up some beans, made a line with a razor blade, and snorted it in the middle of aisle 9.

My gosh.  I think I have a problem.  A friend asked if I was quitting coffee after this month was up.  I told her I’d considered renouncing coffee exactly zero times, and if she ever brought up such foolishness again, I was going to quit her.

Yeah.  I definitely have a problem.

{page 34 from 7: An Experimental Mutiny against Excess}

I laughed right out loud when I read that, clutching my steaming cup of morning joe a little tighter so as not to splatter the pages of 7 with upset coffee.  Though, coffee splatters would have made the book smell good… Visual aids promote help retention, right?  I digress…

Besides celebrating our shared coffee addiction (and hoping we can be friends), I wanted to thank you for writing 7.  Some people find it a bit gimmicky, and to that I say, so what?  The fact that you got paid to eat seven foods or wear seven items of clothing doesn’t diminish what the Holy Spirit did in you and what He will do in people like me who get to journey with you because you wrote the book.

I love how you describe a fast not as restriction for restriction sake, but as reductions and limitations to create more space for God to move, stretch, and transform.  This journey of yours isn’t about numbers.  It’s about becoming maleable, letting God mold you into something that looks more like Him.

Thank you for being candid and just downright hilarious in the process.  If you’re ever in Northern Idaho, lets get coffee!



PS to readers:

I really would like to be friends with Jen Hatmaker.  In the meantime, I enjoy reading her blog posts and books; both of which you can check devour on her website.

And, please put 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess on your reading list!

Keep up with 31 Days of Letters.

Writing tomorrow’s left me emotionally spent…

Day one: Dear #217

Dear #217 {31 Days of Letters}

Dear #217,

Of all the places we will ever live, you will always hold a special place in our hearts.  You, my dear apartment, get to be forever remembered as our “first place”.

Tim and I were professional house sitters after we got married, watching over the houses of family and friends before our big move.  We were quite grateful for the generosity of others during our time of transition, but after a few months, we were ready to have a place we could call our own.

As God would have it, you fell right across our path – in the best possible way, of course.  Tim and I had two days to find a place to live and there you were, meeting all of our apartment desires.  I know we originally signed up for your cousin, #223, but we are so happy things changed.

We appreciate the new paint and carpet and the new kitchen appliances are a plus, too!  I appreciate your proximity to the fire department.  That seems to be a trend everywhere I live and it has come in handy a few times.  We especially love that you are within walking distance from The Kroc Center – perfect for winter workouts when snow makes running outside a tad too chilly.

Even though the toilet your back bathroom runs incessantly and the occupants above you must walk around with lead shoes, Tim and I love to call you home. We’ve actually nicknamed you Timily Place – I hope that’s alright…

I hope this can be a symbiotic relationship.  We promise to spruce you up a bit, add some character, you know?  Would you promise to help us be hospitable to others?  Tim and I want to partner with you to offer relaxation, rejuvenation, and respite to others.  Are you game?  (PS – we like to play those. Have you heard of Fill or Bust?)

I anticipate your walls will absorb a fair amount of laughter, tears, joy, pain, prayers, conflict, love, tension, and excitement.  Our goal is to crowd you with Christ.  We want nothing more than to fill your nook and crannies with warmth and acceptance.

We don’t want you to harbor secrets or collect cobwebs.  We want to throw open windows and let light in and shine our Light out.  Please be patient with us in the process, dear #217.   I am already praying you can accommodate all of our weirdness… Will you be flexible as we adapt and grow in this new season of life?

Again, we appreciate that your walls create a space we can call our own.  Tim may not have carried me across your threshold, but we hold the matching gold keys to your door.   You have been a delight for the past month, #217.  Here’s to 11 more!



31 Day Challenge

I had no idea what people were talking about.  I kept seeing things on Twitter about 31 days, writing everyday in October, The Nester, etc.  I was a bit lost; but then again, I am kind of new to this blog thing…

It didn’t take much googling to figure out what all these bloggers were talking about. The Nester, whose tagline (It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful) I absolutely adore, writes every day during October.  She isn’t writing willy-nilly but focusing her posts on one topic.

The best part about it… she’s extending the challenge (er, opportunity) to everyone!

In a nutshell:

Basically anyone can join in, just pick a topic and write about it every day for the month of October–we all come here and link up on October 1st.

I liked the challenge and the idea of having added focus for my writing, so, as of yesterday, Primitive Roads is in the 31 Day Challenge pool.

My focus for the challenge is writing letters.  Sometimes, what I most want to articulate is best expressed on paper (in this case, a keyboard).

I had already been stewing on an emotionally charged letter I wanted to write to someone i’ve never even met (which will show up during the first week*.  Come back and check it out!), so I decided I would just continue the theme and post a letter a day here on Primitive Roads.

Everyone participating will be linking up tomorrow over on The Nester.  The pool of topics will definitely be worth exploring!

Day 1: Dear #217 – shall we be partners not enemies?

Day 2: Dear Jen Hatmaker – can we be friends?

*Day 3: Dear Jackie – a letter to my husband’s ex-girlfriend

Day 4: Dear Thomas Hammer – rhapsodizing over my favorite coffee shop

Day 5: Dear God – a plagiarized letter

Day 6: Dear Sarah Rose – a letter and apology to a dear friend

Day 7: Dear Cold Weather – a letter to the sudden Fall chill

Day 8: Dear J.A.G. – a letter for my future baby boy

Day 9: Dear Eustace – a letter to a reformed dragon

Day 10: Dear Southwest – a letter to my favorite airline

Day 11: Dear Tim – a letter to my husband on our 5-month anniversary

Day 12: Dear J – a letter to a modern day Joshua

Day 13: Dear Emily – a letter to about a lesson I’m still learning

Day 14: Dear Kenya – a letter without words

Day 15: Dear Weekend – a lament against Monday

Day 16: Dear Brother – a letter about new seasons in sibling relationships

Day 17: Dear Wedding Well-wishers – let’s brainstorm a better way to ask questions

Day 18: Dear Ash – a letter about my longest standing friendship

Day 19: Dear Gramma – a letter to honor a legacy

Day 20: Dear Jesus – a letter of surrender

Day 21: Dear Autumn – a letter of reflection

Day 22: Dear Browned Butter – a letter and recipe

Day 23: Dear Jane Austen – a letter to one of my favorite authors

Day 24: Dear Paul – a letter to the Apostle who gets me

Day 25: Dear Christmas – a letter in poem form

Day 26: Dear Older Women – a letter of encouragement

Day 27: Dear Legs – a request to keep going strong

Day 28: Dear PB – a letter to one of my favorite foods

Day 29: Dear AJG – a letter to my future baby girl

Day 30: Dear HS Gals – a letter for single ladies about waiting

Day 31: Dear Mr. Owl – a letter to my kitchen timer