Letters from Skye

Letters from Skye

by Jessica Brockmole

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345542625
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/13/2014
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 132,842
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jessica Brockmole spent several years living in Scotland, where she knew too well the challenges in maintaining relationships from a distance. She plotted her first novel on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. She now lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Elspeth

Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

March 5, 1912

Dear Madam,

I hope you won’t think me forward, but I wanted to write to express my admiration for your book, From an Eagle’s Aerie. I’ll admit, I’m not usually a guy for poetry. More often, I can be found with a dog-eared copy of Huck Finn or something else involving mortal peril and escape. But something in your poems touched me more than anything has in years.

I’ve been in the hospital, and your little book cheered me better than the nurses. Especially the nurse with the mustache like my uncle Phil’s. She’s also touched me more than anything has in years, though in a much less exciting way. Generally I’m pestering the doctors to let me up and about so I can go back to my plotting. Just last week I painted the dean’s horse blue, and I had hoped to bestow the same on his terrier. But with your book in hand, I’m content to stay as long as they keep bringing the orange Jell-O.

Most of your poems are about tramping down life’s fears and climbing that next peak. As you can probably guess, there are few things that shake my nerves (apart from my hirsute nurse and her persistent thermometer). But writing a letter, uninvited, to a published author such as yourself—this feels by far my most daring act.

I am sending this letter to your publisher in London and will cross my fingers that it finds its way to you. And if I can ever repay you for your inspiring poetry—by painting a horse, for example—you only have to say the word.

With much admiration,

David Graham

Isle of Skye

25 March, 1912

Dear Mr. Graham,

You should have seen the stir in our tiny post office, everyone gathered to watch me read my first letter from a “fan,” as you Americans would say. I think the poor souls thought no one outside our island had ever laid eyes on my poetry. I don’t know which was more thrilling to them—that someone had indeed read one of my books or that the someone was an American. You’re all outlaws and cowboys, aren’t you?

I myself admit to some surprise that my humble little works have fled as far as America. From an Eagle’s Aerie is one of my more recent books, and I wouldn’t have thought it had time to wing across the ocean yet. However you’ve acquired it, I’m just glad to know I’m not the only one who’s read the blasted thing.

In gratitude,

Elspeth Dunn

Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

April 10, 1912

Dear Miss Dunn,

I don’t know which made me giddier—to hear that From an Eagle’s Aerie was among your “most recent books” or to get a response at all from such an esteemed poet. Surely you’re too busy counting meter or compiling a list of scintillating synonyms (brilliant, sparkling, dazzling synonyms). Me, I spend my days robbing banks with the James Gang and the other outlaws and cowboys.

I was sent your book by a friend of mine who is up at Oxford. To my shock and dismay, I have not seen your works in print here in the United States. Even a thorough search of my university library turned up nothing. Now that I know you have others lurking on the bookstore shelves, I will have to appeal to my pal to send more.

I was astonished to read that mine was your first “fan” letter. I was sure it would be just one in a stack, which is why I went to such pains to make it fascinating and witty. Perhaps other readers haven’t been as bold (or perhaps as impulsive?) as I.

Regards,

David Graham

P.S. Wherever is the Isle of Skye?

Isle of Skye

1 May, 1912

Mr. Graham,

You don’t know where my lovely isle is? Ridiculous! That would be like me saying I’ve never heard of Urbana, Illinois.

My isle is off the northwest coast of Scotland. A wild, pagan, green place of such beauty that I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Enclosed is a picture of Peinchorran, where I live, with my cottage nestled between the hills around the loch. I’ll have you know that, in order to draw this for you, I had to hike around the loch, trudge up the sheep path on the opposite hill, and find a patch of grass not covered by heather or sheep excreta. I’ll expect you to do likewise when you send me a picture of Urbana, Illinois.

Do you lecture in Urbana? Study? I’m afraid I don’t know what it is that Americans do at university.

Elspeth Dunn

P.S. By the way, it’s “Mrs. Dunn.”

Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

June 17, 1912

Dear Mrs. Dunn (please excuse my presumption!),

You draw as well as write such magnificent poetry? The picture you sent is sublime. Is there nothing you can’t do?

As I can’t draw worth a dime, I’m sending a few picture postcards instead. One is the auditorium at the university; the second is the tower on the library building. Not bad, huh? Illinois is probably as different from the Isle of Skye as a place could be. Not a mountain in sight. Once I leave campus, just corn as far as the eye can see.

I suppose I do what any collegiate American does: study, eat too much pie, torment the dean and his horse. I’m finishing up my studies in natural sciences. My father hopes I’ll enter medical school and join him in his practice one day. I’m not as certain about my future as he seems to be. For now, I’m just trying to make it through my last year of college with my sanity intact!

David Graham

Isle of Skye

11 July, 1912

Mr. Graham,

“Is there nothing you can’t do?” you ask. Well, I can’t dance. Or tan leather. Or make barrels or shoot a harpoon. And I’m not particularly good at cooking. Can you believe I burned soup the other day? But I can sing fairly well, shoot a straight shot from a rifle, play the cornet (can’t we all?), and I’m something of an amateur geologist. And, although I couldn’t cook a decent roast lamb if my life depended on it, I make a marvellous Christmas pudding.

Forgive my frankness, but why devote all of your time (and sanity) towards an area of study that doesn’t grip your very soul? If I had had a chance to go to university, I wouldn’t have spent even a moment on a subject that didn’t interest me.

I should love to think I would’ve spent my university days reading poetry, as there’s no better way to pass the time, but after so many years masquerading as a “real poet,” there likely isn’t much a professor could teach me now.

No, as unladylike as it sounds, I would have studied geology. My older brother Finlay is always out on the water and brings me rocks smooth from the ocean. I can’t help but wonder where they came from and how they washed up on the Western Isles.

There, now you know my secret wishes! I shall have to take your firstborn child in exchange. Or I suppose I could settle for a secret of your own. If you weren’t studying natural science, what would you be studying? What do you wish you could be doing with your life above all?

Elspeth


From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

Advance praise for Letters from Skye
 
“Letters from Skye is a captivating love story that celebrates the power of hope to triumph over time and circumstance.”
—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers
 
“A poignant tale of a stubborn love that bridges the lives and wars of two generations, Letters From Skye gives the reader a story to inhale as well as read, unfolding amidst the gripping panorama of a changing world — an absorbing and rewarding saga of loss and discovery.”
—Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker
 
“Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is a fascinating, lyrical tale of love and loss.  Gracefully weaving the tales of lovers and brothers and sisters spanning two wars, Brockmole expertly explores the toll of both honesty and deception upon hearts battered by war and society’s expectations.”
—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife

Reading Group Guide

A Conversation with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

Kate Alcott was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live. She is the author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell.

Kate Alcott: Your story maps the lives of two solitary souls who open up to each other in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without letters. How do you think the story of Elspeth and Davey would have played out in our Internet world?

Jessica Brockmole: There are some aspects of the story that I think could only work with letters, and with the specific era in which the letters were written: the social restrictions on a man writing to a woman, and the woman responding, the unhurried pace in which Elspeth and David’s relationship unfolds, the interruption of the war, the almost painful anticipation of waiting for letters sent in wartime, the desperate reliance on ephemeral pieces of paper to hold together a relationship.

Yet, in many ways their story is still relevant today. People fall in love online—­whether through emails, instant messages, interactions on forums, or social media sites. They go through the early stages of a relationship, sometimes without a picture exchanged, relying solely on the written word and the shared passions lying between the lines. Though they don’t often have to wait so long for responses, the anticipation is still there, as is the anxiety about building something through nothing more solid than sentences.

If Elspeth and Davey were telling their story now, via email, the lags might not be there. They wouldn’t have to worry so much about messages waylaid or messages lost (though, as we all know, emails occasionally do disappear into the ether). Yet there would still be counted moments between replies, joy when the replies finally came, anxiety about that first meeting, about hearing words spoken rather than seeing them written. The power of the written word exists no matter what the medium.

KA: What gave you the idea to tell your story solely through ­letters? Could you tell us more about the benefits and pitfalls of that structure?

JB: One reason that I decided to tell Elspeth and Davey’s story solely through letters is that I really enjoy reading real collections of historical letters. I’m fascinated by what’s said and what’s left unsaid, by the story told between the lines. I thought this would be an intriguing way to write a novel, limiting myself in format, yet allowing the story to unfold in a very organic manner.

Another big reason was that I had just moved to Scotland, an ocean away from friends and family. We had to, out of necessity, shift our communication to the epistolary. We had to trust in our words. I found it intriguing how relationships could be held together with nothing but words and sentences (even though those words are mostly emailed these days), without touch and sound. I wanted to explore that in a book.

There were certainly difficulties in limiting myself to this structure. Description of setting and of character had to be approached carefully, so as to sound natural in a letter. Recounting events that involved both the sender and the recipient, such as the three times Elspeth and Davey meet, were tricky. The reader needed to experience those meetings, but both characters already had and didn’t need to recall every detail. I had to strike a balance between story and structure, between giving the reader the necessary information without sacrificing the authenticity of the ­letters.

KA: Were Elspeth and Davey based on real people?

JB: They weren’t based on real people, but I’m sure that both hold characteristics of myself. Like Elspeth, I’m hesitant to venture far from home. I’m sometimes turned so inward that I can lose hours to poetry. Like Davey, I use books as security in a turbulent world, as lucky charms to hold tight to when life seems uncertain. Like Margaret, I’m fascinated by family history. Like Finlay, I sometimes find it hard to apologize. I think it’s unavoidable when writing to prevent little pieces of yourself from sneaking into the story and the characters.

KA: What kind of research did you do?

JB: Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of letters and postcards written during the time, both from published works, from digital archives, and from my own personal collection. I did read many between sweethearts—­from soldiers on the field of battle and the loved ones waiting at home—­but I discovered that those weren’t always the best representatives of epistolary voice from the era. Soldiers’ letters came with a filter. They were always subject to the censor and were often meant to be shared among friends and family at home. It wasn’t uncommon to read aloud a new letter to the larger family group. Many of these letters were polite and formal and careful, even to wives or sweethearts.

To really get a more representative feel for the epistolary language of the time, especially between correspondents who wrote for nobody but each other, I had to look at other exchanges. I read letters between siblings, between best friends, between young couples writing in secret. I read letters written outside of wartime, in the relative freedom of peace. I read letters from men and women, from those young, old, and in-­between. The voices in these letters often felt more relaxed, somehow more true. They chatted casually and unguardedly. So, while the letters from the front gave me specifics about life in a warzone and the emotions carried through battle, all of the details needed for my story, many of the other letters gave me the language that I needed to tell it.

KA: You create a deep sense of place in your novel. What is it about Skye that drew you to that setting?

JB: When I visited Skye years ago, I was struck by the starkness of the landscape, but also by the rich beauty. The rain, the sea, the impossible green of the hills, centuries of myth tucked along the coast. Though I hadn’t written poetry for years, I wanted to then, as I felt ordinary prose couldn’t do the place justice. I began researching the island during the world wars and found more reason to set a novel there. There was such a strong sense of isolation, especially during the First World War, a feeling (at least among some) that the conflict was distant enough to not affect them. I thought this would be intriguing to explore, through a character connected to the war, but not initially expecting to be impacted by it.

KA: You’ve also framed your story between the universal truths and tragedies of two world wars. What do you hope your readers will take away from this novel?

JB: I’d like readers to think about the sense that history can and does repeat itself. Love happens, in and out of wartime. Family secrets and family quarrels happen, regardless of where in the world you are. A generation and a war apart, the same struggles exist. Reading through wartime letters, I see this over and over, the same sorts of heartbreak and worry and joy that people face today.

KA: What are some of your favorite novels—­and why?

JB: Like Davey, my favorite book is very much a security blanket. It’s the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I love as much for its history and for its complex, real characters as for the role it plays in my life. It’s the last thing I pack in moments of upheaval—­college, moves, hospital stays—­and the first thing I unpack.

Apart from that steady favorite, my list changes often, every time I read something new that I can’t stop talking about. I read and enjoy a lot of novels contemporary to the eras I write, like All Quiet on the Western Front or Humphrey Cobb’s wrenching Paths of Glory. Though not contemporary to that era, I was blown away by Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, which brought me to laughter and to tears. I strive to write like that.

Other favorites from recent years include the often-­reread Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk, and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. I love books with strong characters, with enduring love, with difficult decisions. And, of course, history.

KA: What are your writing habits?

JB: Though I do write every day, I don’t have a set routine. In fact, I intentionally mix things up to keep from growing complacent. I am constantly changing location, to various spots both in and out of the house. The few constants, though, are my music, which is always going in the background, and a cup of tea. Something about curling my hands around a steaming cup of tea really helps me to focus.

KA: How long did it take you to write Letters from Skye?

JB: I wrote the first draft of Letters from Skye in ten months of steady writing, and then gradually revised over the following several years. It was the first novel I completed and, as I wrote others and learned more about my process, I was able to apply that knowledge to Skye.

KA: Are you working on a new book? Can you share anything with us about your next project?

JB: I am! My next book is also set during the Great War and centers around a pair of artists—­one Scottish, one French—­trying to recapture a lost summer of innocence in the midst of war.

Interviews

A letter from Jessica Brockmole, author of LETTERS FROM SKYE

Dear Reader,

As an American who spent years living abroad, I know too well the challenge in maintaining relationships from a distance. Before telephones and webcams made separations easier, people had no choice but to entrust bits of their heart to the postman with every letter they sent. A lost letter could cause sleepless nights, a returned letter, even more. But a reply penned immediately, in a hot rush of emotion, could make the soul soar. Letters from Skye is a story about lovers and families separated by war, with nothing but pen and paper to hold everything together.

I first wrote this book six years ago, while I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland. After my youngest was born, we escaped the city and went to the Isle of Skye for one gorgeous week. We stayed in a cottage on the beach and chased legends across the island in the rain. Evenings, I sprawled before the little peat coal fire with maps of Skye, tracing the coast and trying my tongue at the Gaelic. On the drive back to Edinburgh, a story came together in my head. The story of a woman bound to the poetry of Skye, held within those rocky coasts, being given a glimpse of the greater world with the unexpected arrival of an envelope. The story of a man, desperate to prove himself fearless, finding his only fear on the other end of those letters. The story of a daughter, trying to catch the past as it comes tumbling out of the wall. I scribbled notes right there in the car and started furiously writing when we got back home.

The result of that outpouring wasn't just a novel; it was an extended letter to myself, written in those secret, lonely hours after the rest of the world went to bed. A letter reminding me to not lose touch with those I love, no matter where in the world we may be. Reminding me that it's okay to have fears; I'm stronger for overcoming them. Reminding me to walk to the borders of who I am, and then to take a step beyond.

I invite you to do the same.

Customer Reviews

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Letters from Skye: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Read it in 2 days. I enjoyed the letter format. It bounced back and forth between the letters written during the first world war between lovers and the letters written during the second world war between daughter and several people as she looked for her missing mom and tried to figure out what secret the past held. At the same time I was angry with Elspeth for cheating and admired her courage to go after what she wanted. You can't just hurt other people like that and get a charmed life or did she get a charmed life? Just when you thought you had the end figured out a surprise turns up! Now just who's daughter is Margaret anyway? The descriptions of Skye made me feel like I was there and the descriptions of the war raining down on them were very real too. It's a book that makes you feel wistful afterwards and leaves you feeling like you know these people, after all you read their intimate letters. If you love Scotland, mystery and romance this book is for you! Reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.
Copygirl More than 1 year ago
I opened up the copy of Letters from Skye I won this morning and was captivated by it. I couldn't put it down until I finished it. The letter format sucked me in. "Just one more," I said to myself and hours later I was still reading. I had to know what happened to Elspeth and whether she and David ever met and so forth until I had finished the book. I would recommend Letters to Skye to anyone who values relationships that begin with the sharing of mutual interests and respect and slowly build. Elspeth's daughter Margaret adds another layer to the anticipation of what happened in Elspeth's and David's lives, and watching her solve the mystery of Elspeth's closed-off life is beautiful. Even though the story takes place during two wars, there is no real violence to make the book hard to read. Because you get to read the letters from both sides their personalities develop; you learn their dreams and want them to find happiness. I found the ending satisfying and I think the story will stay with me for awhile.
AlanAbrams More than 1 year ago
Letters from Skye is a delightfully good book that spans two world wars. The romance is perfectly told. The story is told through letters, which works perfectly.
irishclaireKG More than 1 year ago
Too 'Twee.' I was excited about this book as Scotland is one of my favorite places yet the entire novel ending up falling flat. For the vast, wild beauty that is Skye, (and the fact the author is from there) there is not much in the way of atmosphere or description that truly captures that. I kept thinking that Skye ended up having little to do with the story--it sort of could have happened anywhere. In 'Downton Abbey's' wake this is another in a seeming flood of WWI and between wars stories--and this one just blends in with the rest. What starts out with an intriguing relationship between an older, married woman and a younger, idealistic student ends up totally predictable with plot points that have been repeated in an endless number of these books. Nothing of any originality happens here although the letter format of the story is engaging. Other reviewers have compared this to the 'Guernsey Literary' novel but I do not see it at all. 'Guernsey' is a WWII novel with wonderfully engaging characters; it is a thousand times better than this. 'Skye' is not a bad book; it works as an easy, afternoon read. But it is not one that will likely stay with you and a savvy reader will see the ending/resolutions coming for miles. In terms of WWI or between the wars novels--if you had read one of them, you have read this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the way the story is written in letters. This would be a good book club discussion novel about - conflict in emotions and perceptions. Another great historical novel is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. Right now it is only 99 cents on the Nook. Both books are excellent and deserve A+++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Poignant. Rich. Subtle. So many more words I could use to describe this book. Jessica does a brilliant job of capturing 25 years of love between the pages of letters passed back and forth across the water. The transformation that Elspeth Dunn, the poetess in this tale, undergoes, is lovely to read. She's like a bird in a cage on her Isle of Skye, but once released, she's not quite sure how far she can fly. Davey, an adventurer with a heart for only one woman, is the key to her cage, but Ian, the childhood friend-turned-husband, is the earth beneath her. Family, love, sacrifice, betrayal, resentment, forgiveness, hope, hopelessness - these are all topics Jessica covers with elegance and grace in the timeless tale of the love triangle. Your heart will break for all three parties (and more), a situation compounded by the atrocities and effects of war. I read this in one sitting - thank goodness for a holiday weekend! Just a heads up - this book is about a war-time adulterous affair, so if the topic is not one you want to read about, this book isn't one for you. This book was provided to me by the publishing company for the purpose of this review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! Such a good read! Could not put it down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Letters From Skye is a a beautiful story. It is a book that I didn’t want to put down, but emotionally I had to stop and take a breath. It’s set in a locations and time periods that I enjoy. It’s a book I will savor for years to come.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully refreshing , deeply emotional, fantastic characterization, highly recommended
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved reading the letters of two people falling in love and the war that came between. This is one book you will be glad to read. It was hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written. Not predictable. Skillful twists and turns right to the end.
reececo331 More than 1 year ago
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole I did not expect this to be actual letters what a great premise to a book. I feel like I am writing my best friend... and getting his responses immediately... love the idea of two romances shown in the two great wars... I am thrown by the idea and the romance of the letters. My parents wrote letters for a year before they met in Europe to get married, so letter writing has a sensitive spot for me. The purity of the written words, the concern of the mother and the rebellion of the daughter. The idea of their letters passing back and forth explaining their lives, their fears, their dreams and their ideals.
huckfinn37 More than 1 year ago
I liked Letters From Skye because I enjoyed the relationship between Elsbeth and David. I liked that David called her Sue.I  loved the letter format of Letters from Skye. The ending was satisfying.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a yawn!!! Elspeth Dunn's ridiculous fright of traveling by ferry made me want to gnash my teeth. I couldn't relate to her at any level. All this secrecy...really, who cares. Why her daughter, Margaret, can find the man who is her father she didn't know she had and Elspeth couldn't after several decades is beyond me!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Normally not the type of book I read but this was so good i read it in less than a day. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Honestly one of the best thought-out, well-written books I have read in a long time. The way the two stories/time periods are interwoven makes for an interesting read. I also enjoyed the short chapters, which helped keep the read quick and easy to follow. I don't want to give anything away, but the story is so poetic and beautiful, I could barely put the book down. I look forward to more books by Jessica Brockmole. Such a good book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
onlybestreviewedRZ More than 1 year ago
This is a beautifully written story that takes place during two world wars and brings to life characters with profound emotion. I would highly recommend it! I truly enjoyed reading this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Jessica has the "voice" of each character. The letters felt so real and felt like you were actually there. There was so much emotion and could feel the intamacy between each penpal. The end gave me chills. I highly recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AnnieMNH More than 1 year ago
This was such a fun read for me. I'm a softy for epistolary novels. The author's descriptions of the Isle of Skye were wonderful!
JacksonvilleReader More than 1 year ago
Great first book from Jessica Brockmole. I enjoyed the format of the story unfolding in letters and bringing together two different generations.