Katherine Henderson left Kansas in 1931 for the bright lights of Chicago, choosing to work at the glove counter at Sears & Roebuck and live in a boarding house, rather than stick around and become a farmer’s wife. One day at work she meets Annie Bennett, a bright, brash, outspoken young feminist whose friendship changes Katherine’s life forever.
In 1997, Katherine’s daughter Joan is back in Lawrence, Kansas, to clear out her mother’s house after her funeral. Inside an old suitcase, she’s surprised to find a box with a collection of trinkets and a set of decades-old sealed letters to someone her mother only identifies by an initial. These letters reveal the passionate, loving side of a woman Joan only ever knew as cold and angry, leading her to question everything she ever knew of her mother and what she wants to do with her own life.
Sandra Moran does a masterful job with all of the characters in Letters Never Sent, from the leads to all of the side characters, no matter how little time they spend on the page. We join Katherine as she leaves Kansas as Katie and spend the bulk of our time with her in Chicago in the 1930s, seeing how the experiences and choices she makes there affect the whole rest of her life.
Joan, on the other hand, we meet at a moment of supreme possibility. Much like her mother before her, Joan is married to someone she doesn’t love and she has the perfect opportunity to decide whether to stay or to go. While Joan may not have ever truly known who her mother was during her life, Kate’s death helps her learn more about not only her mother, but herself.
Annie is difficult to talk about without spoiling too much, but I can safely say that I adored her and she was by far my favourite character in Letters Never Sent. Even though we mostly see her through Kate’s eyes, she’s so expressive that I never felt like I missed out on knowing who she is. She’s brave enough to be vulnerable when she thinks it’s worth it, and she pushes Kate’s boundaries in ways Kate never knew she needed.
The Writing Style
Because the book opens after Katherine dies, we never see Katherine and Joan together as adults. We only know of their fractured relationship through Joan’s recollections or her conversations with Katherine’s best friend and next door neighbour, Lettie Yoccum. As we shift back and forth between Joan’s perspective in 1997 and Katherine’s from the 1930s to the 1960s, Joan and Kate’s stories unfold alongside each other. This reveals the parallels between their lives and helps us understand exactly why their relationship was so bad.
It’s kind of hard to know how to categorize Letters Never Sent. The romance is a major component of it and is the main thrust of Kate’s story, and yet it just doesn’t fit the conventions of genre romance. It’s a book that faces heavy issues like abortion and rape head on, examining them and their after effects without passing any kind of judgment.
It’s worth noting that Kate has a turning point at the 1933 World’s Fair, whose theme was “A Century of Progress.” The fair itself may have been about technical innovation, but the theme’s name serves as a sharp reminder of the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Safe and legal access to abortion has been stripped from many states, and we’re no farther ahead on how we handle rape. It might be safer to be openly gay in many states now than it was in the 1930s, but the current political landscape in the US isn’t encouraging with an administration that is willfully (and likely gleefully) removing hard won rights. Much like Rainbow Gap and The Liberators of Willow Run, Letters Never Sent reminds us that our issues aren’t new and that our elders have already been where we are now.
Lisa Larsen was the perfect choice to narrate this book. It pains me that it’s the only lesfic book she’s narrated because I would love to hear more of her!
The character work is masterful, the storytelling beautiful, and overall it’s just incredibly well done. The narration is also a major pro, because Lisa Larsen did such a wonderful job.
More a content warning than a con, but like I mentioned before, this book deals with abortion and rape very explicitly and on the page. Both are difficult to read, but not at all gratuitous.
I also found it to be much angstier than I tend to prefer. That said, I’m glad I pressed on because it’s a book worth experiencing.
Excerpt from Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran
They smoked in silence. Katherine found herself studying the crack in the sidewalk. She looked up and saw Annie watching her, a cigarette delicately pinched between her fore and middle fingers.
Annie turned her head slightly and exhaled out of the corner of her mouth. “It’s nice to see you.”
“You, too,” Katherine said and was surprised to realize that it was true.
“So, what did you think of The Great Gatsby?” Annie asked.
“It was different than I expected. It was . . .” She searched for the correct word. “Anxious. And sad.”
“And you haven’t found life to be sad and anxious?” Annie asked, a tiny smile playing on her lips.
“No,” Katherine said. “Have you?”
Annie studied her, still smiling, but no longer amused. “Much of the time, yes.”
Katherine blinked in surprise.
“But I’m an optimist,” Annie continued. “Deep down, at least.”
“What do you mean?” Katherine asked.
“I always hold out hope that eventually it will all turn around.” Annie shrugged.
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Bits and Bobs
ISBN number: 9781939562104
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing
Audiobook Publisher: Cherry Hill Publishing, LLC
Narrator: Lisa Larsen
Note: I received a free review copy of Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran. No money was exchanged for this review. I will always review books as honestly as possible and on occasion I refuse to review books.