Helene Hanff Letters: How to tell a story without trying.

Years ago I watched a lovely video about Helene Hanff, a New York script writer with a passion for antiquarian books. 84 Charing Cross Road is the title of it. Based on the book of her letters to Marks & Company, a colorful, poignant story emerges about a starving New York screenwriter and Londoners recovering from the devastation of the war who became her friends through their love of literature.

The shop employees became Helene’s friends over a 20-year period of correspondence. She had learned, from an English couple who lived in her building, that Londerers were under strict rationing of meat, eggs, and other commodities in post war England. She began to send packages filled with canned meats, dried eggs, and later, nylons to the women employees at the store. Each one began to write Helene notes stuffed into the envelope with those of the proprietor, Frank Dole. Most of the letters are hilarious, others sad, but all dripping with the little details of lives during this period of history in the U.S.A. and London: 1949 – 69.

However, the letters between Frank Dole, proprietor at Marks & Company, and Helene, function like an artwork where a few essential lines allow the viewer to fill in the full portrait. I love books like this that spark the imagination while providing an essential record of the times in which they lived. It is a love story of a kind which you will just have to investigate yourself to know what I mean. 

Helene Hanff’s humorous and unedited opinions on everything from “cardboarddy” American published books to baseball are timeless. We learn about a self-educating writer whose love of English literature filled her mind and soul with inspiration as she followed her heart’s delight through the diligence and exceptional taste of Marks & Company and whose employee — Frank Dole — roamed the castles and estates of Merry Ole England finding rare and second-hand antiquarian books of English Literature. Helene’s tastes were specific to the point of eccentricity but Frank “got” Helene. His letters include a satisfying refrain that makes this second-hand book lover feel deep satisfaction: “a good clean copy”. 

Helene writes that she loves a book that has been read before with notes or marks that link them as voyagers on the same journey. Do you relate? I am a reader who loves that. I like to find original purchase receipts from, say, the 1950’s or earlier. Maybe its been made on an old receipt pad, the ones with the black inked page in between the proprietor’s copy and the buyer’s receipt.

The copy of 84 Charing Cross Road that I purchased is a limited new edition published by  another antiquarian book company in London — Slightly Foxed. My edition came in a nice cloth binding and eggshell-colored paper with gilded edges, a very “clean copy”, and a note handwritten by one of the women proprietors. I regularly tune into the Slightly Foxed Podcast to learn about books, publishing, and authors “across the pond”.

It was not until after Frank Dole died, and Marks & Company closed, that Helene thought to publish the letters. She finally received a decent enough income from the popularity of the book that allowed her to visit the London “of English Literature” and the old building and shopfront at 84 Charing Cross Road which had become such an important part of her life.

Think about what letters you may possess that could tell a story which is actually never fully manifest on the page but which is evoked between the lines. I highly recommend that you read Hanff’s book before you embark on that journey! Also watch the video, in which Helene is played be Anne Bancroft and Frank by Anthony Hopkins.

Order your book from Slightly Foxed. Let’s help out those London girls with a passion for good literature.

 

 

Our Lady of Guadalupe – Patroness of the Americas

from http://www.sancta.org/intro.html
from http://www.sancta.org/intro.html

Our Lady of Guadalupe inspires millions of believers, offering a mothering balm of love, peace, and forgiveness through her Blessed Son. Read the legend of the appearance of the Holy Mother on Tepeyac Hill near Mexico City. Her apparition was witnessed by Juan Diego who had gone to the hill at the request of his Bishop to gather roses for the church. The Bishop’s actions were inspired by a request for a sign from the Holy Mother after she asked the Bishop to build a church on the hill. When Juan Diego returned with the roses, an image of the Holy Mother was embedded in his tilga–a garment that has remained without any sign of wear or age for the last 485 years.

Miracles do happen but we never know how or sometimes why. The universe and the Earth herself are imbued with numinous qualities that we intuit but can never “prove”.

guadelupe-tumamoc-hill
Guadalupe Shrine on Tumamoc Hill

In my novel Threshold, Dolores Olivarez is a devout Catholic who recites the Rosary as she hikes the mountain to the top.

At the summit, she looks out over the vast metropolis, and then down at the Birthplace of Tucson at the base of the mountain. cropped-cropped-mission-a-mt.jpg

From a place of reverence, Dolores seeks to understand the meaning of her time and place, much as Juan Diego climbed to gather his roses.

At the Trailhead of a New Year

Paul Baker: The Quiet Path
Paul Baker: The Quiet Path

As the New Year begins today,  I am listening to Paul Baker’s beautiful Celtic harp renderings on The Quiet Path.

I believe it is important to be aware of first steps with the gift of this New Path.

Time as we Westerners perceive it, is a linear path.  But, many other cultural traditions see time as circular, spiral in nature, turning back on itself, learning again and again until the lesson at each part of a life’s path, is complete.

On this first day of the new year, the new physical cycle of the sun’s path, take time to understand where you are on your life’s path. The sun “returns”, lengthening daytime, illuminating our perceptions, invigorating growth and fruitful endeavor.

Happy New Year My Dear Family and Friends!

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge