One Book asks for WWII letters home

I asked my mother recently if I could see the letters my father wrote home from World War II.

"Sorry," she said. "I finally got tired of moving them around and threw them away."

"Oh, no. Why didn’t you give them to me?"

"I didn’t know you wanted them."

I would have wanted them, I told her. I can only imagine the stories they would tell.

My father was in one of the eastern-most units, barreling across Germany to meet the Soviets as the war came to an end. He had proposed to my mother before he left for Europe; they agreed not to marry until he returned.

You can imagine the love that was expressed in those letters. I could hear the melancholy in my mother’s voice as she talked about them.

The novel chosen for this year’s One Book, One Community program is set in World War II, and it includes graphic descriptions of how the war affected two young people – a German boy and a French girl.

It’s one of those books you don’t want to put down. You’ve immersed yourself in the lives of young Marie-Laure, the blind girl who fled Paris with her father, and Werner, the nerdy German boy who was forced to fight for his country. Their stories are your story; you’re on the edge of your seat as their fates hang in the balance.

We can’t transport ourselves back to France in 1944. But through the novel, "All the Light We Cannot See," we can relive the alternating horror and tenderness that author Anthony Doerr weaves into his pages.

And perhaps there’s a way we can visit scenes from World War II, through the eyes of our parents and grandparents who fought on the plains and mountains of Europe and the islands and high seas of the Pacific.

Many Monroe County families have letters from World War II tucked away in boxes in the attic, pasted into albums and folded in bureau drawers.

Individually, they may seem ordinary or mundane to family members. But collectively, they could form a mosaic of memories that would make a significant addition to our perspectives on war in general and WWII in particular.

The Monroe County Museum, The Monroe News and Monroe County Community College are asking you to share your letters with the One Book program.

We promise we’ll take good care of them. If your family is willing to donate them to the museum, they will become part of the museum’s permanent collection, safeguarded for posterity. If you would rather keep the letters, we’ll scan them for use in the exhibit, and return them to you.

We’ll use the letters to create an exhibit at the museum, which also will be shared with the community through the pages of the Monroe News (and its website), The Agora, and at various One Book events.

The idea of asking for letters from World War II comes from a "companion read" that we’ve added to this year’s One Book program. In addition to Doerr’s book, we’re suggesting participants read, "A Thousand Letters Home," by Teresa Irish, which is based on her father’s World War II letters.

Our goal will be to share a treasure trove of memories with Monroe County residents, both today as part of the One Book program, and forever as a museum exhibit.

I can’t get my father’s letters back. But perhaps I can capture something close to the same memories by reading letters written by other soldiers, sailors and airmen who served their country fighting for the cause of freedom in World War II.

(Dan Shaw is a Journalism professor at MCCC and a member of the One Book, One Community Committee.)