This book wants to be more than it actually is. Papa’s Letters is an interesting glimpse into a very small portion of the life of an early 20th century immigrant, but the author’s attempt to turn it into a sweeping love story doesn’t quite make the transition from oral family history to book form, mostly due to the random and somewhat disjointed nature of facts and background that is included (or not included) by the author to fill in the story of her grandparents’ courtship by letter. The title is also somewhat misleading because we only get to read a relatively small amount of letters that are only a few months away from the wedding, not a good representation of the courtship as a whole and at least a quarter of the book is about the author’s experiences in college that sounded like they were fun, but not always adding valuable knowledge of the main story.
The idea of a courtship by correspondence has become less shocking in the age of e-mail and texting, but the idea of getting to know your intended spouse entirely by letter is unusual, even by early 20th century standards. If only the couple in this book felt more real, this would have had more of an impact, but since only one set of letters have survived, the glimpse is very lopsided and doesn’t give an indication of how this couple came to know and love each other through only the letters and a few pictures that were exchanged by mail.
About ten years ago, I inherited a bundle of love letters and diary notes written by my maternal grandfather, David Clarence Hurd. He composed these writings while living in Brooklyn, New York. “Papa,” as my grandfather was lovingly called, was originally born in Brown’s Town, St. Ann, Jamaica, West Indies on April 13, 1885. Beginning in October of 1913, Papa wrote to my grandmother, Avril Louise Cato, who lived in Port Antonio, Jamaica. Initially pen-pals, they wrote to each other for nearly a year. The pen-pal phenomenon was quite popular back then. Customarily, through letter writing a pen-pal connected with another to learn about his country, customs, and lifestyle. Some pen-pal relationships, like that of my grandparents, blossomed into blissful romance. Papa got to know his future bride through letter writing. After forming a loving bond built on trust and faith, Papa poured out his heart to Grandma. He sent many impassioned love letters. He proposed marriage in a letter. She accepted the proposal in a letter. They physically met each other for the first time on Tuesday, August 25, 1914 in Port Antonio, the day before their wedding ceremony.
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