I was looking forward to this because I loved Beowulf for Cretins so much (the title alone makes me smile), and I love the concept of finding old letters. As usual, McMan more than hits it out of the park, creating some vibrant characters she pushes through an intriguing mystery involving herb gardens, bigotry, and a coming out of sorts.
Esther Jane “E.J.” Cloud manages the Dead Letter Office in Winston-Salem NC along with her friend, Lottie. E.J. has a very quiet existence, living in her family’s Old Salem house and volunteering at the town’s communal medicinal herb garden. Her peaceful existence, however, comes to an end with the discover of a cache of undeliverable letters from the nearby town of Paradise to a fictional recipient in care of the herb garden. With the help of her new neighbor, ten-year-old Harriet (“Harrie”), E.J. tries to discover the identity of the sender while pretending not to get caught up in the passionate content, which brings up some unsettling feelings she’s always had for women. And this all happens against the background of 1960s North Carolina, its prejudices and bigotry on full display.
McMan plays to her strengths in this, her thirteenth novel. Her main characters are independent and fiercely imperturbable women who somehow become perturbed, and E.J. certainly qualifies. But she bonds with Harrie over Postum and racial harmony. I’ve often heard it said that people come into each other’s lives for a reason, and that’s certainly the case here as E.J. provides latchkey kid Harrie with stability and Harrie pays her back with adventure. They both learn and grow, which is exactly what characters should do. And McMan makes it look easy.
Neighbor Fay Marian and co-worker Lottie are excellent support characters and sounding boards, especially Lottie, whose nephew is involved in a pivotal lunch counter incident with Harrie. I’m not going to spoil anything, but watch this scene carefully. It’s short and dramatic but drama-free. Its power comes from its presentation as an everyday incident, but one that clearly marks both Harrie and E.J. This is a milieu McMan is obviously familiar with, because she nails both the attitude and the consequences with ease.
Where’s the romance, you ask? Well, certainly there’s a romance. But here as well as Beowulf for Cretins and The Big Tow, the other McMan books I’ve read, the romance is less the point than creating the possibility of romance, of breaking someone far enough out of their routine to accept happiness they wouldn’t ordinarily dare to experience. And watching her take her characters through those changes is always an interesting ride, be it with a towing service, a college campus, or a dead letter office.
Dead Letters from Paradise is good fun from one of our finest authors. Heartily recommended!
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler