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Letters for Emily

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You are so young. You may wonder what an old man like me could teach? I wonder as well. I certainly don't claim to know all the answers. I'm barely figuring out the questions...Life has a strange way of repeating itself and I want my experience to help you...My hope is that you'll consider my words and remember my heart.

Harry Whitney is dying. He has Alzheimer's disease, and he knows his "good" time is dwindling. So he compiles a book of poems for his favorite granddaughter, ...

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0786240652 0786240652 From Publishers Weekly In this tearjerker of a debut novel, author Wright delves into a family's struggle with a dying parent's mental illness, a marriage ... breakup and a mysterious legacy left for a seven-year-old granddaughter. Widower Harry Whitney is old and dying. Alzheimer's disease is taking its toll, and he wants only two things to die with dignity and to be remembered as the good man he once was, not as the drooling, cranky old coot he is becoming. His children are estranged, their marriages on the rocks, and his only true friend is his granddaughter, Emily. After Harry dies, his daughter-in-law, Laura, finds three identical homemade books filled with Harry's poems and stories. As she and Emily discover, each poem and story contains a secret, coded password linked to computer files. The files each hold a special letter to Emily confessions, revelations, advice, even a hint of hidden gold. After Harry's son and daughter read the letters, too, they begin to realize that Harry was a pretty ... Read more Show Less

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2002-06 Hardcover New 0786240652 0786240652 From Publishers Weekly In this tearjerker of a debut novel, author Wright delves into a family's struggle with a dying parent's ... mental illness, a marriage breakup and a mysterious legacy left for a seven-year-old granddaughter. Widower Harry Whitney is old and dying. Alzheimer's disease is taking its toll, and he wants only two things to die with dignity and to be remembered as the good man he once was, not as the drooling, cranky old coot he is becoming. His children are estranged, their marriages on the rocks, and his only true friend is his granddaughter, Emily. After Harry dies, his daughter-in-law, Laura, finds three identical homemade books filled with Harry's poems and stories. As she and Emily discover, each poem and story contains a secret, coded password linked to computer files. The files each hold a special letter to Emily confessions, revelations, advice, even a hint of hidden gold. After Harry's son and daughter read the letters, too, they begin t Read more Show Less

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Overview

You are so young. You may wonder what an old man like me could teach? I wonder as well. I certainly don't claim to know all the answers. I'm barely figuring out the questions...Life has a strange way of repeating itself and I want my experience to help you...My hope is that you'll consider my words and remember my heart.

Harry Whitney is dying. He has Alzheimer's disease, and he knows his "good" time is dwindling. So he compiles a book of poems for his favorite granddaughter, Emily, hoping that his words of hard-won wisdom will heal the old wounds that are tearing his family apart. But Harry's poems contain much more than meets the eye -- clues and riddles that lead to an extraordinary cache of letters and a promise of hidden gold. As Emily and her family uncover Harry's secrets one by one, they learn unforgettable lessons about romance, forgiveness and hope that might hold them all together.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this tearjerker of a debut novel, author Wright delves into a family's struggle with a dying parent's mental illness, a marriage breakup and a mysterious legacy left for a seven-year-old granddaughter. Widower Harry Whitney is old and dying. Alzheimer's disease is taking its toll, and he wants only two things to die with dignity and to be remembered as the good man he once was, not as the drooling, cranky old coot he is becoming. His children are estranged, their marriages on the rocks, and his only true friend is his granddaughter, Emily. After Harry dies, his daughter-in-law, Laura, finds three identical homemade books filled with Harry's poems and stories. As she and Emily discover, each poem and story contains a secret, coded password linked to computer files. The files each hold a special letter to Emily confessions, revelations, advice, even a hint of hidden gold. After Harry's son and daughter read the letters, too, they begin to realize that Harry was a pretty amazing father after all. Wright's word picture of old Harry slowly dying and knowing it is powerful and gripping, as are his vivid portrayals of nursing homes, adult children making tough decisions for elderly parents and the insensitivity of the medicare system. His melodramatic characterizations of husbands and wives involved in divorce proceedings are less successful, but Harry's letters to Emily are eloquent enough to make this a worthwhile read overall. 12-city author tour. Agent, Dorian Karchmar. (Jan.) Forecast: Originally self-published, this novel was a regional bestseller in Utah. It lacks a seasonal hook, and so may not catch on as easily as its close cousin, The Christmas Box, but it is otherwise equipped with all the key trappings of grassroots success including a blurb from Mary Higgins Clark and poems by Wright's grandfather, the inspiration for the book. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Before losing his mind to Alzheimer's, Harry Whitney composes a book of poems for his favorite granddaughter that he hopes will heal the entire family. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A grandfather's legacy to his troubled family.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786240654
  • Publisher: Cengage Gale
  • Publication date: 6/1/2002
  • Edition description: LARGEPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 270
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.44 (h) x 1.01 (d)

First Chapter

Chapter One

My bed is frigid and the room dark. I've placed many blankets on my bed, but they don't stop the cold Wasatch wind that penetrates to my bones. I stare through the window at my snow-covered plants and realize I will miss my garden. I will miss the way the carrots emerge from seeds not much bigger than dust. I will miss thinning beets in the late spring. I will miss digging for new potatoes in the fall. I will miss harvesting buckets of zucchini for unsuspecting neighbors who will then have no idea what to do with them; and I will even miss watching the plants turn brown and die each year as winter sets in.

My garden has taught me that every living thing must die. I have watched it happen now for scores of years -- I only wish I could have a few more summers in my garden with Emily.

I have other grandchildren, and I don't mean to play favorites, but the others live far away and seldom visit. Emily visits with her mother every Friday. Though our ages are more than seven decades apart, Emily and I are best friends.

My name is Harry, a laughable name for a man who's been completely bald most of his life. But, hairy or not, it's my name nonetheless. It was my father's name before me, and his father's before him. I wish I could say it was a name I passed on to my own son. I can't. When he was born and it came time to give him a name, we chose Bob instead. He rarely visits; he never writes. Now, on occasion, I wish I'd named him Harry as well.

Strangely, I'm not bitter about what is happening to me. Why should I be? I am no better than anyone else. I am no wiser, no stronger, and no smarter. (Okay, I am smarter than ol' man Ross who lives next door but that's beside the point.) So then, why not me?

I hope to go quickly so I'll be remembered as Grandpa Harry and not as the person I'm becoming. I fear I'll be remembered as a contemptible, cranky old man and that thought sickens me. The fact is, I'm losing my mind. I have Alzheimer's -- an insidious disease that causes the nerve cells in the brain to degenerate. As it works its havoc, the brain shrinks and wastes away -- dementia sets in, causing disorientation and confusion. There is no cure, no way to slow its determined progression.

This disease is a thief. It begins with short spells of forgetfulness, but before it's finished, it steals everything. It takes your favorite color, the smell of your favorite food, the night of your first kiss, your love of golf. Droplets of shimmering water cleansing the earth during an invigorating spring shower simply become rain. Mammoth snowflakes blanketing the ground in white at the onset of winter's first storm merely seem cold. Your heart beats, your lungs suck in air, your eyes see images, but inside you are dead. Inside your spirit is gone. I say it is an insidious disease because in the end, it steals your existence -- even your very soul. In the end I will forget Emily.

The disease is progressing, and even now people are beginning to laugh. I do not hate them for it; they laugh with good reason. I would laugh as well at the stupid things I do. Two days ago I peed in the driveway in my front yard. I had to go and at the time it seemed like a great spot. A week before, I woke up in the middle of the night, walked into the kitchen, and tried to gargle with the dishwashing liquid that is kept in the cupboard beneath the sink. I thought I was in the bathroom, and the green liquid was the same color as my mouthwash. I get nervous. I get scared, and I cry; I cry like a baby over the most ridiculous things. During my life, I've seldom cried.

There are times when I can still think clearly, but each day I feel my good time fading -- my existence getting shorter. During my good spells, now just an hour or two a day, I sit at my desk and I write. I crouch over the keyboard on my computer and I punch the keys wildly. It's an older computer, but it serves its purpose well. It's the best gift Bob has given me in years. It's an amazing machine and every time I use it, I marvel at how it captures my words. Younger people who have grown up with computers around them don't appreciate the truly miraculous machines they are. They create magic.

I'm not a good writer, but I've loved writing stories and poems all of my life. Writing always made me feel immortal -- as if I were creating an extension of my life that nothing could destroy. It was exhilarating.

I no longer write for excitement. There are times when my back aches and my eyes blur, and I can't get my fingers to hit the right keys, but I continue. I write now for Emily. She is just seven years old. I doubt she'll remember my face; I doubt she'll remember the crooked fingers on my wrinkled hands or the age spots on my skin or my shiny, bald head. But hopefully, by some miracle, she will read my stories and my poems and she'll remember my heart, and consider me as her friend. That is my deepest desire.

At times I feel bad that I'm not writing to my other grandchildren, but I hardly know them. While they visit every Christmas, they don't stay long. They are courteous, but they treat me like a stranger. It's not their fault. I'm not angry with them, and I hope they aren't angry with me.

My worst fear is that before I finish, I will slip completely into the grasp of the terrible monster, never to return. If this happens, my prayer would be that those around me might forget -- but they will not forget -- and then, worse than being forgotten, I will be remembered as a different person than I truly am. I will be despised.

I vow not to let this happen, so during my good times, I write -- I write for Emily.

Copyright © 2001 by Camron Wright

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Reading Group Guide

1. What is Harry's motivation for writing and collecting the letters and poems? Why does he address the letters to Emily rather than to one of his own children? Why do you think he chooses to use the poems to hide passwords instead of just compiling the letters in a scrapbook?

2. The reader comes to know Harry in the first few chapters of the novel and then through his writings, and even after this death he remains a central character in the story. What was your initial perception of Harry? Did your opinion change as the story progressed?

3. Through reading Harry's book of poems and letters, Bob and Michelle come to learn about their mother, as well as about their parents' courtship and marriage. Why did Harry not tell them about their mother when they were growing up?

4. Bob has a contentious relationship with Harry, believing that Harry was not a good father and even referring to him by his first name. After Bob has read a portion of the letters and poems, Laura says to him, "'I think you're starting to understand the old man, and that bothers you'" (pg. 168). Why does this bother him? How do Bob's feelings about his father change as he discovers more about him?

5. When the novel opens, Bob and Laura's marriage is dissolving. How does their relationship change as the story progresses? What role does Harry play in their relationship both before and after his death?

6. Laura questions the cause of Harry's death, even wondering if a person can will himself to die and then delving into his medical history. What drives her to pursue this quest?

7. In one letter Harry writes, "Parents are strange and wonderful creatures....They are just people struggling to do the best they can, just the same as you are. You will feel let down, betrayed, even ashamed. This is the time, Emily, when you need to forgive your parents for being human" (pg. 165). The letter is addressed to Emily, but how does this reflect Harry's relationship with his own children and with Bob in particular?

8. Harry's book affects each of the characters that read it. How does each character change from having read Harry's writings? Which of the letters did you find the most compelling, and why?

9. In the Afterword, Camron Wright speaks of being inspired by the writings of his grandfather, Harry Wright, and makes the following statement: "I would encourage the reader to seek out the writings and letters of his or her own parents, grandparents, or other loved ones. Perhaps, in this search, hidden wisdom will be discovered as well. It may be, in reading forgotten words, in remembering their lives, their sacrifices, that their frailties will wash away, their strengths will surface, and they will be remembered fondly. It is a wish that everyone should be granted." What does he mean by this last sentence? How does this sentiment play out in Letters for Emily?

10. Do you have any letters, poems, or other writings from your own relatives? If so, how have they changed or inspired you?

11. What did you learn or gain from reading Letters for Emily?

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