What There Was Not to Tell
About ten years ago, I began the process of writing “What There Was Not to Tell,” a book based on letters my parents exchanged during World War II. There were more than 2,000 letters and it took me a whole year just to read and organize the letters. These were not the usual letters of war, exchanges of love and longing, though there was some of that. Instead, these were about a man named Tom, who my mother had decided to marry instead of my father. My mother and father had known each other since childhood and it had always been my father’s intention to marry my mother. My mother, however, liked to play the field. One summer while on vacation with her parents in the Adirondacks, my mother met a man named Tom. Tom fell for my mother rather hard and then came war. He asked my mother to marry him but she could not make up her mind between him and my father. Tom was the swashbuckler; my father was quiet and steady.
Both my father and Tom joined the Air Corps, which is the early name of the Air Force. Tom trained to be a pilot and my father, an engineer, helped plan and build the air fields. My father was sent first, to North Africa, where he slept in a tent beside the air field and wrote sad letters home to my mother. Tom remained stateside, taking little training planes up into the air and landing them, then writing about his experiences to my mother. One day in 1941, Tom called my mother to tell her he was being sent into the South Pacific. She was not home and so he left a message, saying he was leaving. On the way over, he wrote to her: “How can I do any good in this war if I can’t be sure of your love?” She wrote back, telling him she would marry him and mailed it off. Tom was shot down and killed before the letter could reach him. It, and other letters she had written to him at that time, was returned to my mother, stamped “deceased.” My mother’s heart was completely broken and for months she withdrew from life, writing to my father only to tell him of Tom’s death then ceasing to write at all. He wrote and wrote, hoping to encourage her to write back. In her silence, my mother came to the decision to join the American Red Cross, in hopes of being sent to New Guinea, where Tom’s plane had gone down. She hoped perhaps to visit his grave, or to find him. She felt there had been a mistake, maybe he wasn’t dead, just missing, or maybe even his serial number had been confused with someone else’s. She simply couldn’t accept the news of his death.
My mother ended up joining the Marines, among the first women to serve. She was sent to Miramar in San Diego where she worked a desk job, processing soldiers coming in and out of the South Pacific. Daily she greeted soldiers returning, missing a leg or an arm, blind or with head injuries, the typical and tragic result of a bloody war. After six months she wrote home to her parents, “You needn’t worry anymore. I no longer want to go over. I’ve seen enough from here.”
My parents died within two months of each other after nearly 50 years of marriage. When my sister and I opened our mother’s wallet, we discovered a photo of a young man we did not recognize. At the funeral, we asked a few relatives who identified him as Tom. She never forgot him and she hoped we never would either. His parents became our third set of grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Platt, we called them. Tom had been their only son and they died in the 1950s, clearly, even to me at that very young age, broken-hearted.
This book is about a love story but it is much more than that, a book about how one death in a big war can reverberate into the next generation, how war does not end with the peace treaty but instead continues to corrode the heart, like the slow and steady rub of sandpaper of a rough surface. It is the story I saw when I read those letters and thought about the life we led in our house, so soon after World War II, both my parents returning from the war and quickly marrying like thousands of other veterans. They were encouraged to be proud of their service, and they were. They were encouraged to carry on and get jobs and buy houses and have children, and they did. But deep down, I don’t think either of them ever completely healed from the war. Whenever I used to ask my father about the war, he always used to say, “There isn’t much to tell.” And that’s why I titled it, What There Was Not To Tell, since what I learned from the letters they left behind is huge in proportion to what they ever did tell me about that war: nothing much. I think what he actually meant to say was, “There is too much to tell. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
And so the book is supposed to be about the aftereffects of war, the deep wounds it leaves even on those who never received a scratch from their service. And the affect it can have not only on those who were left behind but even on those who were born after. But, for some reason, publishers to whom I have sent this book find it unlikely anyone would want to read it. They all say it is a good book, that it is beautifully written, they all say it deserves to be published. Except not by them. The most recent rejection I received said this, in part: “This is a wonderful book, beautifully written but it would be ‘small’ for us (meaning we could only get out a couple of thousand copies). Please remember I am with one of the most commercial houses in the industry. We publish John Stewart and Nicholas Sparks, etc. And, our bottom line has been tougher lately as bookstores get less traffic, so our new mandate is to go after the “really big” books and we’ll publish fewer of them. I do hope you find a way to send this to more houses, ones that can take a bit of risk.”
I wonder what they mean by “risk.” I’ve never known publishing to be about anything but risk and what I think is sinking the big houses now is the mad dash for the “big” hit, which they keep missing and missing and missing by publishing “sure bets.” That doesn’t work in horse racing and it doesn’t work in publishing either. The “sure bets” that miss are a lot more expensive than the risks. Publishers are in the embrace of planning their future by looking at their past, a very poor way to publish literature.
If this book ever does get published, I’ll be able to tell my own war story about how many times the manuscript was turned down before someone found it. It does make me curious, though. All I can do at this point is just keep going. I’ve written in other blogs about the Kindle and the “fate” of the written word and so on, the evolution of reading and writing, whether changed by technology or the warp of the modern brain. Everyone has a theory and I’m no exception. I think what is clear is that publishing is in the midst of a revolution and we won’t know the outcome for some years into the future. It could be that trying to stay safe will kill the industry. I look at the best seller list and I see celebrity profiles and how-to books and I think, it’s not so much that people don’t want to read or buy books anymore but more that people are not being given books that interest them, excite them, mystify them and make them think. In my experience, there are still legions of people out there who love to read.
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