The Letter Home
The Letter Home (copyright 2005)
The Letter Home is, quite simply, the greatest anti-war picture book ever created.
Set during World War I, a combat medic writes a simple letter about his experiences. He tells of the places he travels, the events he survives, his fellow soldiers and his discovery of a sense of humanity that lives beyond the destructive grasp of modern war.
Kirkus Reviews: (starred review)
Though this quiet tale of war is set in 1918 Europe, the story itself could reflect any modern war. An extended letter from a father to his son in America, the narrative begins: “I did not want to write to you until I could say that I would be home soon.” The delicately etched, black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings, each framed on lovely cream-colored paper, are spare and beautiful, whether depicting soldiers trudging through fields or passing day in and day out in bunkers. Overall, the artwork reflects wartime’s quieter moments, though, “Some nights were alive with fireworks.” The letter writer’s Red Cross-style armband subtly marks him as a medic, but readers know for sure when he mentions a Far Eastern prayer he learned from a patient in 1917: “Compassion as action to ease the pain of the world.” On the last page, as on the cover, stands a sad-looking boy with his letter and a mysterious pair of soldier’s legs. Father? Maybe not. This elegant work powerfully conveys the slow crawl of war from a soldier and father’s perspective.
Decker’s debut, styled as an illustrated letter from an American medic to his child at the end of WW I, indicates the difficulties of explaining war to a young audience. Scant background is provided—readers never hear who is fighting whom, or why—but the title page vaguely announces a setting (Europe, 1918), and the letter-writer is recognizable by his Red Cross armband and lack of a rifle. Terse words and pictures of icy weather convey his physical coldness and raw boredom, although he rarely speaks of his medical duties. One pen-and-ink drawing appears per page, a postcard-size rectangle captioned with an oblique statement about what he has endured. The medic remembers his infantry’s march to the front lines, passing beneath American and French flags. On a stark, barbed-wire-strewn battlefield (“Some nights were alive with fireworks”), a soldier peeks out of a sandbagged trench as white explosions crack the sky. “Sometimes we played hide and seek,” says the medic ingenuously, as he and others evade shadowy armed figures. The soldiers’ bland faces, with no mouths, eyes turned down at the corners, convey dejection, and some details recall antiwar novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five (“Hendricks found a woman’s coat. We all laughed…. He said that it kept him warm”). Yet the medic’s “prayer” as his ship glides toward the Statue of Liberty (“Compassion as action to ease the pain of the world”) remains as enigmatic as the situation. The retrospective “letter,” which alludes to death while remaining nonjudgmental, implies the painful realities that adults try to withhold from children. All ages.
School Library Journal:
Grade 6 Up – This spare, somber picture book is best suited to older students or adults as readers must have some background knowledge of World War I to comprehend it. Careful attention to the black-and-white, pen-and-ink illustrations is required in order to understand the details that are not spelled out in the slight text. The title page features a picture of old-fashioned twin-wing airplanes. A banner in the corner says, 1918 Europe. The story begins with an illustration of a man writing a letter. It reads, I did not want to write to you until I could say that I would be home soon. His descriptions are brief but emotion-filled. As the book progresses, readers learn that he is encapsulating his entire wartime experience in this one letter. They see the journey across a great body of water, then soldiers marching with packs. The illustrations show fortifications with barbed wire and foxholes. The boredom and anxiety of waiting are both conveyed. A signal bird finally brings the long-awaited news–It ends, 11:00 a.m. 11/11. A boat passes the Statue of Liberty, providing the clue that the man is returning home. The final image shows a boy holding a letter beside the still-open mailbox as a man in a soldiers uniform appears before him. A thoughtful reminiscence that is sure to spark discussion.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw Letter in Front Street’s catalog, but its incredible drawings immediately got my attention. I wanted to see just what author/illustrator Timothy Decker did with this story about a WWI medic and his letter to his small son. I read it once, and then again, and I keep picking it up. This book is breathtaking — not in a dazzling sort of way, but in the quietest way possible. It is one of the best books I have read this year. Decker’s story is simple: a young medic (he wears an armband on his coat with a red cross) is writing a letter, one “I did not want to write to you until I could say that I would be home soon.” He recounts the voyage by boat, the march through fields and forests and “then into nothing.” They played hide and seek and “must have looked like schoolboys” but the days and nights passed slowly. In the end, after learning that they will be going home soon, he remembers a man who was in his care “back in ’17.” The man told him an old prayer: “Compassion as action to ease the pain of the world.” And in the end, as the boy stands at the mailbox and reads the letter, a soldier watches from across the road and the reader hopes that is the medic, home at last. You hope, even though you can not see his face, that it is him.
The prayer line in the book comes from a Buddhist prayer, and is a perfect expression of the battlefield work that is done by medics; work that could transform the world if it was embraced by every man, woman and child as a way of life. I do not know how Timothy Decker came to know these words, or why he chose to apply them to World War I, but this story with its spare and haunting artwork, makes a deafening statement about peace and war. It’s not a story for young children, but for teens, for adults, for history buffs of all ages and backgrounds, it’s a treasure. I thought it was simply beautiful.
Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books: (recommended)
Readers who peruse this parable thoughtfully will understand there’s a changed man wearing those army boots as he approaches his farm and a little boy who will eventually realize just how much anguish his father kept from him. This war isn’t really over, and there are more to come.