Friday, June 17, 2011
The Last Letter by Kathleen Shoop
The Last Letter opens as Katherine Arthur opens her home reluctantly to her dying mother and her sister, Yale. Katherine has been estranged from her mother for years, bitter about how their family fell apart after attempting to homestead on the plains in the late 1800's. But, with her mother dying, Katherine discovers letters between her mother and father, and between each of them and their neighbors that opens a door of understanding for her. She looks back at that time with the eyes of an adult rather than those of a child.
The Arthur family comes to the plains in disgrace. Wealthy businessmen, the Arthurs were successful bankers until it became evident that they had used the money to finance their lifestyle. Bitter at the scandal her father caused and the loss of all their money, Jeanie Arthur moves from a mansion to a dugout on the plains; she, her husband Frank, and their four children crammed into a hole in the prairie.
Jeanie attempts to make the best of things, but the plains are harsh and unforgiving. There are bugs and snakes, burning heat, sudden weather changes such as tornadoes and blizzards, and what seem like Biblical plagues of grasshoppers. Life is brutal and a daily struggle to survive. The Arthurs would not survive without their neighbors, and the friendship of the other women is all that holds up Jeanie in this difficult challenge. But tragedy strikes, and the family leaves the plains and splits up. Can Jeanie and Katherine be reconciled?
Kathleen Shoop makes the lives of the pioneer women come alive. The dirt and disease and hard work that is a part of daily life are outlined in a way that is uncommon, transporting the reader to that time and place. She also recreates the interdependency between neighboring families and how strong those friendships were. This book is recommended for historical fiction readers, as well as readers interested in family dynamics.