It’s Never Too Late to “Meet Me at the Museum”

1250295165.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_  Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum focuses on second chances in life and love, but shifting gears into this slow-paced epistolary novel fired up my unexpected interest in anthropology and had me looking for more information.  The Tollund man, a perfectly preserved prehistoric man found in the Danish bog, now on display at the Silkeborge Museum in Denmark, is the motivation behind a chain of letters between an unhappy older woman dissatisfied with her life on the farm, and a lonely museum curator who has recently lost his wife.  Tina Hopgood initiates the letters with an inquiry about the Tollund man, and Anders Larson, the museum curator responds,  with a short lecture on the exhibit and an invitation to visit.  

After 40 years as a farm wife, Tina is regretting she never visited the museum but also wonders about other options in her life she never had the chance to consider. Recently widowed Anders works at Denmark’s Silkeborge Museum, which houses Tollund Man, and is finding himself unable to move on after the death of his wife.  Gradually, over eighteen months of writing, their salutations progress from “Dear Mrs. Hopgood” and “Best Wishes” to “My dear Tina” and finally to  “All my love.” 

As the letters become more personal, they disclose their struggles and give each other advice.  Both have grown daughters who are about to make major changes in their lives, and both are wondering if their lives have had any meaning.  Throughout the story, Youngson interjects long descriptions of farm life from Tina and details of the Tollund Man from Anders.  Tina’s letters are filled with the monotony of tending chickens and slaughtering pigs.  She describes picking raspberries, noting that no matter how careful she is, she always finds some she’s missed, comparing her life to a missed row of raspberries. As their letters eventually merge into philosophical observations from both correspondents and the realization of their new-found connection, raspberries become their private reference for second chances, with Anders noting “I feel I have overlooked far too many of the fruits in this life I have.”

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us…Please do not be angry with the circumstances of your life … nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered.”

Youngson may be her own inspiration for the story.  As an Oxfordshire farm wife who always wanted to write a novel, she finally did write this debut novel in her sixties, and is now pursuing a Ph.D.  It’s never too late.

UnknownAs for Tallund Man, here’s what I discovered – click here for more information

 

Other Epistolary Novels I’ve Enjoyed:

  • Daddy Long Legs
  • 84 Charing Place
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • The Divorce Papers
  • Dear Committee Members

To the Bright Edge of the World

9780316242851_p0_v5_s192x300    Eowan Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World had me remembering the startling blue of the icebergs and the crisp cold of the Alaskan air when I visited several years ago. Ivey’s story is based on the actual 1885 expedition of Colonel Allen Forrester, and references diaries and letters from the exploration of the newly acquired Alaskan Territory as the foundation for a compelling epistolary novel.

The real Forrester explored over a thousand miles of wilderness and become the first to chart the Copper River, leading an expedition as significant as Lewis and Clark’s.  The novel uses the imagined letters of Colonel Forrester to his wife, Sophie, as well as his formal accounting of his findings as he travels the unexplored Wolverine River area in Northern Alaska with a small crew.

Forced to remain behind because of her pregnancy, Sophie keeps her own journal and sends letters to her husband.  When she miscarries, Sophie, a former schoolteacher with a penchant for studying birds, purchases a camera, and embarks on her own expedition to capture pictures of nesting birds in the woods surrounding her home at Vancouver Barracks in Washington.

As Allen Forrester suffers starvation, disease, and bitter cold traveling through uncharted Territory, he also discovers the power of the local culture, and Ivey weaves old otherworldly legends into her tale, treating them with respect and awe.  The women with feathers growing out of their wrists, calmly washing clothes by the river full of geese; the old medicine man with the black hat who can fly and transform into a raven who steals Sophie’s hair comb; the monster in the river who almost kills one of Forrester’s men – all add flavor to the steady reporting of the mundane as well as the explorer’s  battle with the unforgiving elements of nature.

Ivey grounds the story in the present by creating a fictional descendant of Forrester, Walter, who is seeking a home for the artifacts and papers he has inherited.  Walter is getting old, and has started a correspondence with Josh, the museum curator in  Alaska, who has agreed to digitize the papers and establish an exhibit. Through Josh, Ivey offers pictures interspersed through the narrative, and updates on the current political and environmental turmoil.  Ivey muses on the power and beauty of Nature, and comments on the disconnect between preserving the culture of the past while moving on with demands of the present.

“How can we say this person is valued less or more, is better or worse, because they are a part of one culture or another, and why would we want to?”

To the Bright Edge of the World combines adventure, history, and romance with discovery – not only of forbidding new land but also of inner truths.  As a reward for both Allen and Sophie, as well as for the reader, Ivey projects a fictional continuation in the ending as the couple continues to explore – both plausible and satisfying.  A fellow reader suggested this book would be both engaging and uplifting – she was right.

 

 

 

Dear Committee Members

9780385538138_p0_v1_s260x420English professors write the best letters of recommendation, but beware. They can kill you with articulate faint praise (and sometimes vitriol) – and you won’t even know. In her epistolary, Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher chronicles the life of an English Professor – from the idiotic to the sublime – through his letters.  As the letters progress through the academic year, Jay Fitger reveals his relationships with colleagues, students, former wives, current lovers, literary agents, and Payne University where he is a long-time tenured professor of English and Creative Writing.  Without tenure, he could not have survived, and with true academic justice, he eventually becomes one of the administrators he consistently criticizes.

Not everyone will appreciate the humor – maybe you’d have to have been there – but I laughed out loud. And I wondered if Schumacher had somehow gotten into my files of LOR (letters of recommendation) when one letter about a student’s research skills notes:

He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources…

Jay Fitger never refuses a request for a letter, and he always tells the truth.  You won’t have to read too carefully through the abstruse wording to get the witty references.

Sadly, computerized forms and electronic messaging are replacing letter writing. Stamps are becoming extinct and writing paper may soon be hard to find. Ironically, I read the book on my iPad. But, within the context of letters, Schumacher humorously demonstrates how language can be its own reward, and tells a good story with it.