Reviewed by Gail M. Murray
Masterful storyteller Graham is constantly on the hunt for little-known stories in Canadian history bringing them to light with her extensive research, vivid prose and memorable characters. Here she ensures that Canadian soldiers stationed in Hong Kong later suffering atrocities as Japanese POWs are remembered. She also shines a light on the largest race riot in Toronto’s history. She expands on the themes of bigotry, prejudice, family, lives stolen by war and the enduring power of love.
Her novel covers 1933 to 1945, beginning in 1933 at the height of The Great Depression, a city teeming with unemployment, anti-Semitism and civil unrest. Graham divides chapters between the perspective of Molly and Max. Molly Ryan is an Irish Protestant and Max Dreyfus a Jew and the brother of her best friend Hannah. Their friendship is growing into a full-blown romance.
The anti-Semitism is sprinkled throughout as Molly searches for work shocked at signs in store windows – Jews Need Not Apply - and later near the Balmy Beach Canoe Club – no Jews or dogs. The volatile tension erupts one hot August night, August 16, 1933, when the Swastika Club unfurls a large banner in Christie Pits Park at the baseball game between St. Peters (Anglo-Saxon Protestants) where Molly’s brother is playing and Harbord Playground (mostly Jewish) with Max a star athlete. Ten thousand brawl into the night. During the riot, Molly’s policeman father is injured by a brick and Max unfairly accused, creating a deep rift between the families. Molly studies journalism and Max medicine.
Years later as a reporter for The Star, Molly interviews Max about his experiences as a Japanese POW. Although Max has shut down his emotions to survive the harrowing conditions, old feelings surface. This is a particularly poignant part of the novel.
Through these well-developed characters, Graham engages her readers both intellectually and emotionally. We are privy to their conflict, suffering, courage and hope. Graham believes “a love story is important for bringing emotion into the story and emotion is what will help people remember the actual history.”
Graham provides detailed author’s notes, reading guide and bibliography.
This novel is triumphant; Graham’s best yet.
Letters Across the Sea is published by Simon & Schuster.