When I was a kid, I had pen pals. Some were exotic, like Leyla from Morocco. Others were more local, like Jody from a few towns away. One was a distant cousin, a grownup. Every time a letter arrived, it was a wonderful gift: not only would I get to read a letter, I would get to write one, too. The concept of writing a letter without receiving one was pretty alien.
Not so with the two Marys—Mary Potter Kenyon and Mary Jedlicka Humston. Throughout their friendship, despite the easy availability of email, texting and telephones, they wrote letters. Sometimes they wrote multiple times a day, without waiting. In thousands of letters, they wrote about lots of things—but apparently rarely shared intimacies. They never discussed politics, sex or money—at least not overtly—as they became close friends. And they became writers. Mary Potter Kenyon has a number of non-fiction books to her name, and Mary Jedlicka Humston is a published poet.
They also became advocates for letter writing. With this in mind, I was looking forward to reading some of their correspondence.
I was disappointed. Neither woman saved her letters. That is understandable: there would be thousands, and some would probably be fairly mundane. But the book begins after most of the correspondence ends. We don't get to read the contemporaneous story through their unforced sharing. We won't learn about how they raised their children, dealt with daily life, or the world's changes since 1987.
In short, there are no letters in this book about writing letters.
Instead, the book is a collection of essays on various subjects, written by the Marys. Occasionally, there is a question thrown in—"Dear Mary, how did you combine motherhood and writing?" "Dear Mary, how do you go about writing a letter?" Writing prompts of a sort. The Marys' essays in response are chatty, moderately insightful and easy to read.
Then there are the essays by the "guests"—Becky, Jill, Kathy, and the rest. Who are they? Why are they popping up in the Marys' book? Their essays have little to do with either the material by the Marys, the time frame being discussed or even the writing prompts. Every time I came across one, I was distracted trying to figure out who was writing and why.
It made it hard to get back to the story of the Marys. There was a story—how two women who had corresponded for years decided to begin writing prose and found each other at home in a Christian writing group. They dealt with death, cancer and self-doubt. It might not have been enough of a story to justify an entire book, at least not without some form of structure. Which is a shame, since both Marys write with a light touch and gentle observation. I kept hoping for more of a through line, something to keep me coming back from the various detours.
In sum, this is a pleasant collection of short essays. The best parts are when the Marys are chatting about each other. The not-so-good parts are when it gets derailed. A nice bedside read. Oh, and great title, right? Love that "link through ink"!
Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology and is the Director of the Winthrop Iowa Public Library. She is widely published in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies. She is a popular speaker and workshop presenter for women's groups, libraries, community colleges and writer's conferences. Her public speaking repertoire includes the topics of caregiving, couponing, writing, utilizing your creativity in your everyday life, and finding hope and healing in grief. This is Mary's fourth book published by Familius. She is the author of Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession, Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage, and Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace. She lives in Manchester, Iowa. Check out her website.
Mary Jedlicka Humston, a former high school teacher, graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in English Education. She has had over 150 poems and essays published at the local and national level in newspapers, magazines, books, and online. One of her poems was chosen to be projected on the Krakow City of Literature UNESCO Poems on the Wall in 2014. Mary has presented programs on cancer, dealing with chronic illness, prayer, writing, and the Little Free Library movement. She is a member of National League of American Pen Women and The University Club Writers of Iowa City. She lives in Iowa City with her husband Jim.
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