Answers to go with Susan Smith

Q. I pulled the book and movie versions of “84, Charing Cross Road” from the Staff Picks display. I really liked the novel written as a series of letters. Is there a name for that type of book? Can you help me find some more?

A. This reader was surprised to learn that “84, Charing Cross Road” wasn’t a novel. Helene Hanff’s book consisted of her own letters to a used-book dealer in London and his replies.

Hanff’s casual, irreverent New York City style contrasted appealingly with the formal English of her correspondent, Frank Doel. Though they never met, they built a relationship based on a common love of books.

Over 20 years, she found out more about the shop and its staff as she requested hard-to-get editions of English classics. She was particularly concerned to learn that post-war rationing made it difficult for the English to get eggs, meat, tea, jam, milk and canned or dried fruit. 

She sent Christmas packages of food for the bookstore staff to share.  Food rationing finally ended in 1954.

This reader and I agreed that the book was better than the movie, even though the movie, starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, was very good.

The library shelves are rich with books of letters written by both famous and less well-known folks.  Here is a sample:  Texans Juan Seguin and Katherine Anne Porter, Sylvia Plath, Charles Darwin, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walter Cronkite, Abigail and John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Let’s turn to our reader’s question about the name for novels written as letters. 

Epistolary novels are written in the form of correspondence. I recommended another book set in about the same period: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. In this novel, a London writer, Juliet Ashton, receives a letter from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands held by the Germans during World War II. 

Dawsey Adams read a secondhand copy of a Charles Lamb’s essays. He found Juliet’s name and address in the book and wrote to ask if she could recommend a bookshop that might carry more of Lamb’s work.

Dawsey writes, “Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb.”

Juliet is intrigued with the letter and the Society’s name. She asks if she can write to other members and use their responses to write an article for the “Times of London.” 

Those letters reveal the issues of hunger, love and loyalty that came with living on an island that was used to supply food to German soldiers on the mainland.

After D-Day (June 6, 1944), British and American forces moved across Europe to attack Hitler’s armies. 

Guernsey wasn’t liberated until May 9, 1945.  At the end, there was very little food for either the islanders or the German soldiers who were now trapped on Guernsey.

If you’d like either novels or non-fiction like these books, just come in and talk to our reference librarians. We’d be happy to help you find more.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666