Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Canadian Historical Fiction Review: Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham

Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham
Published: April 27th, 2021

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Genre: Historical Fiction/Canadian Fiction/WWII Fiction

# of pages: 384

My rating: 5 stars

Acquired this book: From the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for honest consideration

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Buy: Amazon Canada || Amazon US || Indigo


At eighteen years old, Molly Ryan dreams of becoming a journalist, but instead she spends her days working any job she can to help her family through the Depression crippling her city. The one bright spot in her life is watching baseball with her best friend, Hannah Dreyfus, and sneaking glances at Hannah’s handsome older brother, Max.

But as the summer unfolds, more and more of Hitler’s hateful ideas cross the sea and “Swastika Clubs” and “No Jews Allowed” signs spring up around Toronto, a city already simmering with mass unemployment, protests, and unrest. When tensions between the Irish and Jewish communities erupt in a riot one smouldering day in August, Molly and Max are caught in the middle, with devastating consequences for both their families.


Six years later, the Depression has eased and Molly is a reporter at her local paper. But a new war is on the horizon, putting everyone she cares about most in peril. As letters trickle in from overseas, Molly is forced to confront what happened all those years ago, but is it too late to make things right?

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Genevieve Graham is single-handedly bringing little-known aspects of Canadian history to light - and to life - through her thought-provoking, emotional, heartbreaking, beautiful books. After reading five of Graham’s books, I think it’s safe to say I’ve learned more about Canadian history from her than I ever did in school.


Letters Across the Sea illuminates yet another aspect of Canadian history I knew nothing about. Starting in Toronto, Ontario in the early 1930s, the Great Depression permeates every aspect of daily life. Jobs are hard to come by, people are working hard for little money, and families are going hungry. Add to that the hatred and antisemitism making their way around the globe, in large part thanks to Hitler and the rise of the Nazis, and tensions are running high across the city. People who were once friends and neighbours now have an ‘us versus them’ mentality, and there’s a rise in white supremacist and anti-Jewish hate groups. All of this culminates in the Christie Pits Riot, which tears apart families and friends, and changes life as Molly Ryan and Max Dreyfus know it. 


Told in alternating points of view between Molly and Max, we see things through the eyes of a young Protestant woman and her Jewish neighbour and lifelong friend, who’s also the older brother of her best friend. We see the hatred, fear, pain, and confusion experienced from both perspectives, along with the friendship and longing between the two. Nothing is ever the same for Molly and Max - or their families - after the riot.


Time passes and life moves on. The Depression continues, although things slowly improve. When war is declared, Max enlists, along with Molly’s brothers and many of their mutual friends. This leads into another little-known aspect of Canadian history: the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, and Canadians being held in Japanese POW camps for years under horrendous conditions.


Like Graham’s other books, Letters Across the Sea wasn’t an easy read. It was painful - gut wrenching at times - but it was an incredible story about enduring love, bravery, tenacity, and hope. It was difficult reading about the horrible things people are capable of, and that pain was made sharper by the contrasts to today’s racial and religious tensions and injustices. It was a painful reminder that in many ways, things haven’t changed that much in the last 80-90 years. People were gathering for protests and marches back then the way they are now, and it’s easy to believe something like the Christie Pits Riot could happen today. Books like this are a reminder that we need to do better and there’s still a lot of work to do, despite the tireless work of many.


Graham’s wonderful, realistic characters and skillfully woven plot ensured Letters Across the Sea was yet another unforgettable read.

Have you read Letters Across the Sea or any of Genevieve Graham's other books? Do you enjoy books about lesser-known aspects of history?

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