The Letters

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Overview

When Chiaki learns that her mother’s former landlady, Mrs. Yanagi, has died, she decides to attend the funeral. The last time she saw Mrs. Yanagi was when she lived in her apartment building when she was a little girl. Chiaki takes a trip back through time and remembers what her life was like shortly after her father’s death. At first young Chiaki is scared of old Mrs. Yanagi, but as time goes on, they form a close relationship. Then Mrs. Yanagi reveals that she has a special mission in life. She will deliver ...
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Overview

When Chiaki learns that her mother’s former landlady, Mrs. Yanagi, has died, she decides to attend the funeral. The last time she saw Mrs. Yanagi was when she lived in her apartment building when she was a little girl. Chiaki takes a trip back through time and remembers what her life was like shortly after her father’s death. At first young Chiaki is scared of old Mrs. Yanagi, but as time goes on, they form a close relationship. Then Mrs. Yanagi reveals that she has a special mission in life. She will deliver letters to the dead when she herself passes away. She keeps the letters in a drawer and when it is filled, then she will die. She warns Chiaki that anyone else who looks in the drawer will carry the burden of delivering the letters instead of her. Chiaki starts writing letters to her father every day to overcome her loss. Years later, Chiaki is unprepared for the surprises that await her at Mrs. Yanagi’s funeral and the unexpected turn her life will take from that point on.

In Japan, the death of her former landlady triggers a young woman's memories about her father's death when she was six years old, and the special way the old lady helped her to cope with the loss.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A six-year-old Japanese girl loses her father suddenly and moves to a tiny apartment in the suburbs. She finds solace in her elderly landlady and in writing letters to her father. "The author of The Friends once again addresses the subject of death with extraordinary grace and dignity," wrote PW in a starred review. Ages 12-up. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From The Critics
When Chiaki hears about the death of Mrs. Yanagi, her former landlady from childhood, she decides to go to the funeral. Now in her late twenties, Chiaki remembers her experiences with this woman and the significant role she played in her life. At six years old, as a result of her father's sudden and untimely death, she and her mother moved into one of Mrs. Yanagi's apartments at Popular House. There, she stayed with Mrs. Yangi and healed, while her mother worked. With Mrs. Yanagi's daily care, the two form a lasting and loving bond. More intriguingly, Chiaki also learns about this woman's personal mission of delivering letters to the dead from the loved ones that they have left behind. This inspires Chiaki to write letters to her own deceased father, asking Mrs. Yanagi to deliver them for her. Thus, through the art of contemplation and reflection, young Chiaki eventually begins to deal with her father's death by expressing her thoughts and feelings through her letter writing. This is a beautifully written, heartwarming story about hope, and overcoming the most difficult of tragedies, death. The author, Kazumi Yumoto, has crafted an incredible story that can be enjoyed by a wide audience, especially the lives of young people who are just coming to terms with the circle of life. 2002, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 176 pp.,
— Melissa Fyfe
Children's Literature
After the death of her father, Chiaki, who is only six, moves with her mother to an apartment in Poplar House where she meets Mrs. Yanagi, the landlady. Mrs. Yanagi often watches Chiaki while her mother is at work and the elderly landlady claims that she collects letters to the dead that she will carry to them when her own time comes. Chiaki begins writing to her father and, when she is grown, the death of Mrs. Yanagi brings back to Chiaki all those memories and she returns to Poplar House. This is an interesting concept, allowing the reader to understand the workings of a young girl's mind and to feel compassion as the child experiences fears and compulsions brought about by the changes in her life when her father dies. The story is heavily descriptive, which might stall the younger reader, but the more mature will recognize aspects of themselves in the narrator. 2002 (orig. 1997), Farrar Straus Giroux,
— Carolyn Mott Ford
KLIATT
Young Chiaki is haunted by her father's sudden death and mystified by her mother's refusal to grieve. The world has become a dangerous place filled with black holes, down which loved ones can disappear forever without warning. Chiaki attempts to control her fears with obsessive rituals, but when she falls ill, her now working mother must let her recuperate in the care of the frightening landlady, Mrs. Yanagi. The old woman's toothless smile reminds Chiaki unpleasantly of Popeye. Over time, however, the landlady reveals she has a mission—to carry letters for her "clients" with her in her coffin to the dead. Soon Chiaki is writing letters to her father, at first formal and brief, but later warm, confiding and lengthy. In the course of this one-sided correspondence, Chiaki recovers her memories of her father and eventually comes to understand the mystery behind his death. Reminiscent of Kyoko Mori's Shizuko's Daughter, this book is translated into a more vernacular English. This novel celebrates the power of words and story to help a girl comprehend and live in the universe where she finds that she is not alone but part of a network of others who need her as she needs them. Good for classroom use and libraries, for girls from 10 to 15 and units on multiculturalism. KLIATT Codes: JS*—Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students. 1997, Random House, Dell Laurel-Leaf, 145p., Ages 12 to 18.
—Myrna Dee Marler
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-At 25, Chiaki Hoshino returns to the house that she lived in as a small child for the funeral of the landlady and remembers how the already elderly Mrs. Yanagi had helped her come to terms with her father's death. The scary old woman claimed to be a mail carrier who would take letters written to those who had died with her when she passed away. Until then, she would keep them safe in a drawer. Chiaki recalls how she came to discover a "world where words communicated," and wrote letter after letter. The memories and the letters demonstrate the child's changing concept of and understanding of death. Following the trail of her question about where her father went back to its very beginning, she finds the answer only when she reads the one letter her mother also entrusted to their neighbor's letter drawer. Reeling from the loss of a lover and an unborn child, the narrator had been preoccupied with thoughts of her own death until the unraveling of this old mystery and the amazing spectacle of Mrs. Yanagi's funeral give her reason to live. The particulars of young Chiaki's everyday life are specifically Japanese-the rice-ball lunches, the landlady's kimono, the tatami mats, and futons-and set this story solidly in that country, but the themes are universal. Smoothly translated into English, this title by the author of The Friends (Farrar, 1996) is another thought-provoking examination of the nature and meaning of death for a somewhat older readership.-Kathleen Isaacs, Edmund Burke School, Washington, DC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In this lyrical tale translated from Japanese, a 28-year-old woman looks back on the year after her father's death, when she was six and seven. Chiaki's adult voice frames the account, revealing that she has had trouble with a lover and is considering suicide. As the story opens, the adult Chiaki hears about the death of Mrs. Yanagi, the landlady who helped her through that year. The news prompts memories of her fears as a child and her increasing confidence as she spent time with the crusty old landlady. Beautifully rendered incidents show the development of their friendship, and capture dark evenings around a bonfire. At the heart of the year is Mrs. Yanagi's revelation that she will carry letters to the dead when she dies, and that Chiaki can send letters to her father that way. The letters, perfectly pitched in a child's voice, ease Chiaki's pain. At Mrs. Yanagi's old house before the funeral, a wonderful scene discloses that Chiaki is not the only one to have entrusted letters to Mrs. Yanagi. At the same time, she learns a tragic family secret that sheds light on her problems and leaves her more hopeful about the future. Most of Chiaki's time as a child is spent with adults, and her childhood experiences are interpreted through her adult self. Such an adult sensibility, combined with a story about a young child, may limit the teenage audience, but for those readers who appreciate evocative writing that explores psychological questions, this quiet novel will be satisfying indeed. (Fiction. 13+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780440238225
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 11/11/2003
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 176
  • Age range: 13 - 15 Years
  • Product dimensions: 4.25 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.47 (d)

Meet the Author

Kazumi Yumoto began her career as a writer by writing scripts for operas while attending Tokyo University of Music. After graduation she decided to try her hand at writing a novel for young readers. The Friends, her first book, is the winner of the 1997 Mildred A. Batchelder Award for Translation. It was also named an ALA Notable Children's Book and won the Recommended Book Prize from Japan School Library Book Club.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Read an Excerpt

The Letters


By Kazumi Yumoto

Laurel Leaf

Copyright © 2003 Kazumi Yumoto
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780440238225

Chapter 1



What's wrong? . . . You don't sound very cheerful. Have you eaten supper yet? . . . No, wait. I'm calling for a reason. I just got a call from Miss Sasaki . . . Yes, that's right. The woman from Poplar House."

As I listen to my mother speaking on the other end of the line, the years we spent in Poplar House come flooding back, and suddenly, I know. The old lady is dead.

By "the old lady," I mean Mrs. Yanagi, the landlady of the apartment where my mother and I lived for three years. My father died when I was six, and a short while later we were forced to leave our house. We moved to Poplar House, into one of three small apartments the old lady rented out. Miss Sasaki, the woman who had contacted my mother, also lived there.

"When Miss Sasaki dropped by to see her in the morning, there was no response. She seems to have died in her sleep."

"In the morning?"

"This morning."

I inhale slowly. If it was this morning, then even if she had come to my bedside to bid me farewell, I would have slept right through it. For some reason, when I knock myself out with pills at night, I am occasionally afflicted with powerful nightmares. Last night I dreamed that I was the corpse of an enormous fish being beaten against a concrete wall. It is a recurring pattern in my dreams.

"How old was she?" Iask.

"Ninety-eight. A peaceful way to go, don't you think?"

Which means that she must have been eighty when we lived there. Yet she had promised me when I was seven that she would try to stay alive until I grew up, and she had kept her word, although it must have required quite a firm resolve from someone as old as eighty.

"She said she called because there are some letters."

"Some what?"

My mother lowers her voice slightly and repeats slowly and distinctly, "Let-ters."

"Did Miss Sasaki say that?"

"Yes," my mother replies, but then changes the subject. "I wonder if I should send flowers . . ."

I was ten years old when we left Poplar House after my mother decided to remarry. Neither she nor I had seen our former landlady since, although of course we wrote letters and even sent the occasional photograph. But I know with absolute certainty that those are not the kind of letters Miss Sasaki was talking about. They are the letters I entrusted to the landlady when I was seven, the ones she had placed in a certain drawer of her black dresser. So she had kept them for me all this time.

"You send the flowers, Mom."

"Huh?"

"I'm going to the funeral. It won't take long by plane."

"Won't the hospital mind?"

It has been a month since I quit working as a nurse at the hospital, but I still haven't told my mother. "Don't worry about that."

"Who said I was worrying?" Then, after a short silence, she adds, "You always make your own decisions anyway."

"That's right."

"Say hello to Miss Sasaki for me."

"Sure."

After hanging up the phone, I sit staring vacantly for a while. What a long distance now separates me from our old landlady and Poplar House and the poplar tree in the yard, from everything that I had once thought "good," although I am not sure what that meant. It is as if the three years plus that I spent in Poplar House have become no more than a dream to the person I am now.

I throw a change of underwear and some toiletries and a paper bag full of medicine into an overnight bag and firmly zip it shut. I mutter to myself that it is ridiculous to take all my sleeping pills with me when I'll only be gone for one or two days, but another part of my brain retorts, "You don't think it's ridiculous at all. You know you can't get it off your mind." I shake my head. I don't know what will happen after this, but I do know that tonight at least I am not going to let myself be a dead fish. And tomorrow I will get on the plane and pay my respects to the old lady. That much I have to do.

I crawl under the covers and close my eyes. I hear rustling poplar leaves whisper in my ear. "Let's talk. Let's talk," they say. It is a pleasant, dry autumn sound, and I know immediately that it does not come from outside.



Chapter 2



When the first rush of activity had passed following my father's death in a car accident, my mother seemed to carry on with the housework as usual. Then suddenly she stopped and went to sleep. She slept and slept. How long did it last, I wonder? A week? It seems much longer, but perhaps it was only three or four days. I was still in first grade. All I remember is that before I knew it, the summer vacation had already started, and I was eating canned salmon whenever I felt hungry while my mother slept. It seems odd that there was nothing in the cupboard but cans of fish. The salmon on the label had a cold glassy stare, and it certainly was not someone I could talk to. I haven't been able to stomach canned salmon since, and even now, when I see stacks of it displayed in the grocery store, the soles of my feet turn clammy.

By the time I had consumed a lifetime's worth of salmon in a matter of days, my mother got up with the same abruptness with which she had taken to her bed. Now she began riding the commuter trains, taking me with her. It was not as if she was going anywhere. She just boarded whatever train happened to come along, then rode and rode until she decided to get off. Under the scorching summer sun, we would traipse about some town that we had never seen before, stop somewhere to eat cold noodles or crushed ice with syrup, and then board a train once again.

I don't think we talked much during that time. I was well aware that my mother had no desire to speak about my father. As for myself, although the news that he was dead had at first filled me with grief--and I had wept aloud when I saw him lying in the coffin, his head bandaged in white gauze--now I felt as though a membrane had stretched itself around my heart, and I could no longer recall what my father was like when he was alive. The tremendous grief that my mother nursed as anger and rejection of the world around her had communicated itself to me as well.

Continues...

Excerpted from The Letters by Kazumi Yumoto Copyright © 2003 by Kazumi Yumoto. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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First Chapter

Chapter 1



What's wrong? . . . You don't sound very cheerful. Have you eaten supper yet? . . . No, wait. I'm calling for a reason. I just got a call from Miss Sasaki . . . Yes, that's right. The woman from Poplar House."

As I listen to my mother speaking on the other end of the line, the years we spent in Poplar House come flooding back, and suddenly, I know. The old lady is dead.

By "the old lady," I mean Mrs. Yanagi, the landlady of the apartment where my mother and I lived for three years. My father died when I was six, and a short while later we were forced to leave our house. We moved to Poplar House, into one of three small apartments the old lady rented out. Miss Sasaki, the woman who had contacted my mother, also lived there.

"When Miss Sasaki dropped by to see her in the morning, there was no response. She seems to have died in her sleep."

"In the morning?"

"This morning."

I inhale slowly. If it was this morning, then even if she had come to my bedside to bid me farewell, I would have slept right through it. For some reason, when I knock myself out with pills at night, I am occasionally afflicted with powerful nightmares. Last night I dreamed that I was the corpse of an enormous fish being beaten against a concrete wall. It is a recurring pattern in my dreams.

"How old was she?" I ask.

"Ninety-eight. A peaceful way to go, don't you think?"

Which means that she must have been eighty when we lived there. Yet she had promised me when I was seven that she would try to stay alive until I grew up, and she had kept her word, although it must have required quite a firm resolve from someone as old aseighty.

"She said she called because there are some letters."

"Some what?"

My mother lowers her voice slightly and repeats slowly and distinctly, "Let-ters."

"Did Miss Sasaki say that?"

"Yes," my mother replies, but then changes the subject. "I wonder if I should send flowers . . ."

I was ten years old when we left Poplar House after my mother decided to remarry. Neither she nor I had seen our former landlady since, although of course we wrote letters and even sent the occasional photograph. But I know with absolute certainty that those are not the kind of letters Miss Sasaki was talking about. They are the letters I entrusted to the landlady when I was seven, the ones she had placed in a certain drawer of her black dresser. So she had kept them for me all this time.

"You send the flowers, Mom."

"Huh?"

"I'm going to the funeral. It won't take long by plane."

"Won't the hospital mind?"

It has been a month since I quit working as a nurse at the hospital, but I still haven't told my mother. "Don't worry about that."

"Who said I was worrying?" Then, after a short silence, she adds, "You always make your own decisions anyway."

"That's right."

"Say hello to Miss Sasaki for me."

"Sure."

After hanging up the phone, I sit staring vacantly for a while. What a long distance now separates me from our old landlady and Poplar House and the poplar tree in the yard, from everything that I had once thought "good," although I am not sure what that meant. It is as if the three years plus that I spent in Poplar House have become no more than a dream to the person I am now.

I throw a change of underwear and some toiletries and a paper bag full of medicine into an overnight bag and firmly zip it shut. I mutter to myself that it is ridiculous to take all my sleeping pills with me when I'll only be gone for one or two days, but another part of my brain retorts, "You don't think it's ridiculous at all. You know you can't get it off your mind." I shake my head. I don't know what will happen after this, but I do know that tonight at least I am not going to let myself be a dead fish. And tomorrow I will get on the plane and pay my respects to the old lady. That much I have to do.

I crawl under the covers and close my eyes. I hear rustling poplar leaves whisper in my ear. "Let's talk. Let's talk," they say. It is a pleasant, dry autumn sound, and I know immediately that it does not come from outside.



Chapter 2



When the first rush of activity had passed following my father's death in a car accident, my mother seemed to carry on with the housework as usual. Then suddenly she stopped and went to sleep. She slept and slept. How long did it last, I wonder? A week? It seems much longer, but perhaps it was only three or four days. I was still in first grade. All I remember is that before I knew it, the summer vacation had already started, and I was eating canned salmon whenever I felt hungry while my mother slept. It seems odd that there was nothing in the cupboard but cans of fish. The salmon on the label had a cold glassy stare, and it certainly was not someone I could talk to. I haven't been able to stomach canned salmon since, and even now, when I see stacks of it displayed in the grocery store, the soles of my feet turn clammy.

By the time I had consumed a lifetime's worth of salmon in a matter of days, my mother got up with the same abruptness with which she had taken to her bed. Now she began riding the commuter trains, taking me with her. It was not as if she was going anywhere. She just boarded whatever train happened to come along, then rode and rode until she decided to get off. Under the scorching summer sun, we would traipse about some town that we had never seen before, stop somewhere to eat cold noodles or crushed ice with syrup, and then board a train once again.

I don't think we talked much during that time. I was well aware that my mother had no desire to speak about my father. As for myself, although the news that he was dead had at first filled me with grief--and I had wept aloud when I saw him lying in the coffin, his head bandaged in white gauze--now I felt as though a membrane had stretched itself around my heart, and I could no longer recall what my father was like when he was alive. The tremendous grief that my mother nursed as anger and rejection of the world around her had communicated itself to me as well.
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