Epistolary novels aren’t my go-to genre, yet whenever I dive into one, I’ve not been disappointed. In fact, I’m usually astounded by the way the author deftly carries the storyline through letters or journals, outside the usual narrative parameters of scenes utilizing action and dialog.
Here are a few I’ve thoroughly enjoyed:
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2009) — Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (World War II)
- March (2005) — Geraldine Brooks (Pulitzer Prize winner and shoot-off of Little Women through Mr. March’s point of view as a Civil War chaplain)
- The Screwtape Letters (1942) — C.S. Lewis
- A Gathering of Days (young adult, 1979) —Joan W Blos
- The Jolly Postman (picture book, 2001) — Allan & Janet Ahlberg (a favorite of my kids back then!)
Other ones I haven’t read:
- Dear Mr. Henshaw — Beverly Cleary, a children’s classic that won the 1984 Newbery Medal
- The Color Purple — Alice Walker, a 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner
- The Princess Diaries — Meg Cabot, based on journal entries
Despite these successful books, when I realized that Things We Didn’t Say was an epistolary novel, I hesitated. I prefer to read a novel laid out scene by scene. Could this unknown-to-me author, Amy Lynn Green, pull off an effective novel-length story merely through a bunch of letters?
Well, she did. Brilliantly so. I was hooked immediately, and plunged in with no regrets.
This was Amy Lynn Green’s debut novel—absolutely stunning.
Her other two books are also World War II fiction:
- The Lines Between Us (2021)
- The Blackout Book Club (November, 2022)
Headstrong Johanna Berglund, a linguistics student at the University of Minnesota, has very definite plans for her future . . . plans that do not include returning to her hometown and the secrets and heartaches she left behind there. But the US Army wants her to work as a translator at a nearby camp for German POWs.
Johanna arrives to find the once-sleepy town exploding with hostility. Most patriotic citizens want nothing to do with German soldiers laboring in their fields, and they’re not afraid to criticize those who work at the camp as well. When Johanna describes the trouble to her friend Peter Ito, a language instructor at a school for military intelligence officers, he encourages her to give the town that rejected her a second chance.
As Johanna interacts with the men of the camp and censors their letters home, she begins to see the prisoners in a more sympathetic light. But advocating for better treatment makes her enemies in the community, especially when charismatic German spokesman Stefan Werner begins to show interest in Johanna and her work. The longer Johanna wages her home-front battle, the more the lines between compassion and treason become blurred–and it’s no longer clear whom she can trust.
In 1944, linguist Johanna Berglund, against her better judgment, leaves university and returns to her Minnesota hometown to be a translator and censor letters in a WWII POW camp. Her loyalty comes into question as she works with prisoners, when she starts to see them as real people, not just “the enemy.”
We know from the get-go that Johanna is going to be tried for treason after the escape of two POWs. The entire book is comprised of letters, newspaper columns, editorials, documents, and personal notes of the previous year—all of which her lawyer will use to defend her against the charges.
I’d never heard of POW camps in Minnesota. In the story, as was common due to a labor shortage, the POWs worked on farms and in factories during the day, and were held at the camp at night. In the book, it’s fictional Camp Ironside.
Johanna is a force to be reckoned with. In one of his many letters, her friend Peter Ito writes:
“You’re like the Grand Canyon, Jo.
Some people stand before it and see strength and beauty,
but others can only feel small and shake in their boots.
(Only partly joking.)” –p 207
Peter nailed this metaphor. Fierce and feisty, Johanna plows ahead, unafraid of consequences or popular opinion. She’s outspoken, snarky, and down to earth. She owns her corner of the world, her unique perspective delivered with a hilarious, sarcastic wit. As someone who is condescending and hasn’t quite mastered getting along with people, she goes where angels fear to tread and doesn’t back down.
Though her lack of kindness, humility, and teachability was sometimes off-putting, she did listen to her dear friend Peter. It seems Peter is the only one who reaches her, perhaps because he understands and accepts who she is, and offers gentle wisdom without expectation. It made for plenty of growth in Johanna’s character arc.
Peter is a Japanese American who teaches Japanese at a military intelligence school. His San Francisco family, a victim of prejudice, is interred in a camp in Arizona. Johanna begins to see prejudice through Peter’s eyes, and then through the eyes of POWs. Men who have families or sweethearts back home. Men who love music.
In a multitude of letters, we hear the voices of many people through an onslaught of emotion. Afraid of POWs working their farms or attending their churches, townsfolk send off letters to the newspaper editor, Brady McHenry, who has opinions of his own.
We hear the voices of the German prisoners in the newspaper’s POW column, the Potato Brigade. We hear the voice of Stefan Werner, the POW spokesman. We hear from Pastor Sorenson, wrestling with forgiveness and Martin Luther’s view of Jews. We hear from his daughter Annika and her bitter grudge toward Johanna.
Themes of prejudice, racism, trust, forgiveness, loyalty, grace, and mercy weave a very tight fabric. This thought-provoking, substantial story is no light read as it evokes emotion and demands self-reflection. Questions arise as to who are friends and who are enemies, and what unconscious prejudices we each harbor.
It’s the kind of story you want to keep on reading to find out what happens, but also want to savor and not finish.
“I love my country. And therefore, I must hate the Jews, not personally,
but for the sake of protecting all that I love.
Just as you Americans hate us Germans to protect what you love.”
—Captain Stefan Werner (p 104)
“Sometimes showing grace breaks us before it heals us.
Forgiveness can feel like a betrayal of justice.
We want others to deserve grace, or at least ask for it,
even knowing full well that the greatest grace was extended to us ‘when we were enemies.’”
— Pastor Sorenson (p 141)
“And there is where I see hypocrisy.
You ban Wagner from a camp of Nazi soldiers but use his works in your own Hollywood movies
that support policies against race mixing that are similar to the Nazi regime’s.”
— Otto von Neindorff in POW Potato Brigade newspaper column
“Real life is dreadfully tedious, the way it interrupts reading.” — Johanna
“Who would I be without the propaganda of America?”
Check out the author notes and great book group questions at the end.
Join me for some Q & A with author Amy Lynn Green.
Questions about Things We Didn’t Say
What was your inspiration for writing Things We Didn’t Say? What’s your personal connection to the setting?
Amy: One of my main inspirations was the desire to learn more about the history of Minnesota, where I live. Besides that, I’d always known I wanted to write a book written entirely in letters and other documents.
When I was researching Minnesota’s history, I found out that there were over a dozen German prisoner of war camps scattered throughout the state during WWII. Then I found out that just a few miles from where I lived, there was a secret Japanese school to train translators and spies.
Well, those two fun facts just couldn’t go to waste, and the true story of Minnesota’s history sparked my fictional characters: Johanna Berglund and Peter Ito.
What historical parameters were imposed on you? Where did you have to fill in the gaps with your imagination?
Amy: For this book, keeping to the historical parameters was surprisingly easy. Jerry Yocum from the Prisoner of War Museum in Algona, Iowa, gave me a tour of the displays (including books of POW letters), then handed me a flash drive of research gold: hundreds of newspaper articles, maps, menus—everything he had on the POW camps in Minnesota.
Harder was writing about the students at the top-secret Japanese language run by the Army and based in Minnesota, as seen in my character Peter Ito. Not because there wasn’t any research material, but because I wanted to represent the Japanese-American students and teachers accurately.
Ironside Lake isn’t a real place, and none of my major characters are historical figures, but almost everything that happens to them happened somewhere in a POW camp in Minnesota.
How did you develop your heroine Johanna Berglund? She’s a very opinionated, outspoken young lady. What would she have to say about you?
Amy: I came up with Jo like I do most of my main characters: by asking the question: “Who would be the LEAST likely or able person for the task of the story? While Jo speaks multiple languages fluently she’s not, however, known for being great with people. That made her a delight to write.
I have a feeling that she’d think I talk too much and am far too emotional, although if I brought her tea and a book, we’d get along just fine.
Do your characters hijack the story or do you have full rein? Which characters would you be least likely and most likely to get along with?
Amy: It’s less that the characters hijack the story and more that I start thinking about the story through the lens of character and don’t go in with much of a plan. There are always surprises!
As for favorites, Peter is a sweetheart—who could not get along with him? But I would probably most like to have Cornelia Knutson as a neighbor. She and I would always have plenty to talk about, and I might even beat her at Monopoly occasionally.
Why did you tell the story through letters? Did you decide that at the outset or later? What are the main challenges of telling a story through letters versus real-time scenes?
Amy: Some people are surprised to find Things We Didn’t Say is written entirely in letters, newspaper articles, and other documents. Although I’d read epistolary novels, I had no idea if I could pull one off myself, and was shocked to find it was…fun! I started with the very first letter—Jo writing her lawyer about being accused of treason—with no idea how the story was going to take her there.
The most fun aspect was letting a number of minor characters get a chance to tell their story through a one-off letter or article in the newspaper. The most challenging aspect was revealing characters’ motivations and thoughts without describing their actions, using only the words they or others would actually write down.
What unusual thing did you do or discover while researching for this story?
Amy: I’m not sure if it counts, but here’s a fun fact: there’s a quote from Johanna that is almost word-for-word the musings of a cute guy friend: “I’ve seen the best and the worst of this little town, and I’ve realized it’s made up of people with their own prejudices and priorities and hopes and fears—just like me. We’re all just fallible people trying desperately to make sense of an incomprehensibly complex world.”
I stole his text message and put it into my manuscript. Shortly after, we started dating. Then I got a publishing contract…and about a year and a half after that text message, we got married.
Questions about writing
What books have been most influential for you as an author?
Amy: I will always list here Saint Ben by John Fischer. It’s out of print now, but a beautiful (and funny!) coming-of-age novel with many thought-provoking moments. I read it first at age twelve, when my elementary class met the author, but I get more out of it with each re-read.
As far as craft books, I greatly benefited from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott when I was just starting to write.
Where do your story ideas usually originate from—character, plot, setting, theme, or a combination? Share examples of how one of your stories grew from an initial idea.
Amy: I’ll often find a “spark” of an idea as I research interesting and little-known historical facts. The Lines Between Us started from seeing an interview with a conscientious objector during WWII, and The Blackout Book Club was born when I came across a line about a volunteer group called the Hooligan Navy that patrolled the New England coast. From there, I brainstorm characters and a rough plot and get started!
Share a little about your novel writing process, and the length of time it takes to complete a book.
Amy: I love that every writer has a totally different writing process. Mine is not one I could ever teach a class on. It’s minimally-managed chaos.
For example, I write scenes out of order, sometimes just in dialogue first, adding the descriptions later. Sometimes I leave scolding notes for myself in the margin about what’s wrong so I can fix it later instead of obsessing over it in the moment. And maybe 1-2 minor characters survive the first draft without their names being changed. Occasionally I think I know the ending, but by the time I get there I am never right. Never.
Let’s just say that I do a lot of editing after that messy first draft is done. The rough draft process takes me ten months to a year, which is longer than many writers, but it works for me!
Please share something about a current project or the direction you want to go as an author. Will you continue to focus on World War II fiction?
Amy: My fourth novel, coming out January 2024, will be set in WWII, and it’s the first one that will be moving overseas! There’s no official title yet, but it follows a group of entertainers as they dodge danger and learn to depend on each other during a tour of North Africa with the USO to perform for the troops.
Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?
Amy: A few quick thoughts: Read in your favorite genre and in a wide variety of other genres and styles. Write without tying your hopes and dreams to what happens to that particular manuscript, knowing the process itself is the best teaching tool out there. Encourage other writers–living from a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity will make you a better writer and a better person.
Back to Laura . . . On a similar note . . .
If you enjoy small town historical fiction that deals with tough issues, consider my re-launched novel All That Is Hidden, Set near North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1968 (rather than 1940s Minnesota), the story spotlights the bond of family and the connections of a tight-knit community. Northern exploitation threatens as a father’s hidden past catches up to him and tests family ties. Learn more and watch the trailer here.
In June 2022, I was named a semifinalist in Serious Writer’s Book of the Decade contest for All That Is Hidden. Additionally, in August, All That Is Hidden became the winner of the Artisan Book Reviews Book Excellence Award.
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Amy Lynn Green bio:
Amy Lynn Green is a lifelong lover of books, history, and library cards. She worked in publishing for six years before writing her first historical fiction novel, based on the WWII home front of Minnesota, the state where she lives, works, and survives long winters. She has taught classes on marketing at writer’s conferences and regularly encourages established and aspiring authors in their publication journeys. In her novels (and her daily life), she loves exploring the intersection of faith and fiction and searches for answers to present-day questions by looking to the past. Learn more on her website.
Join me next time for a visit with author Melanie Dobson.
Meanwhile, have you read Things We Didn’t Say or others by Amy Lynn Green? What do you think of epistolary novels? Answer in the comments below.