A review by Elizabeth Gauffreau of “Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family in World War II” by Joy Neal Kidney
“Leora’s Letters” by Joy Neal Kidney opens with a description of a family ritual: going to the local cemetery on Memorial Day to place flowers on the graves of three brothers killed in World War II.
Many families across the United States engage in this ritual to honor the sacrifices of their loved ones, gaining some small measure of comfort in being with them at their final resting places — but in the case of the Wilson family, two of the three graves are empty.
Neal Kidney is the niece of those three brothers, and Leora was her grandmother. Neal Kidney took on what was truly a labor of love to find out what exactly happened to her uncles and how these events impacted the family at home on the Iowa farm.
The stories of her two uncles who survived the war are also included, as well as the perspectives of their two sisters, their father and, of course, their mother, Leora. This was a family.
Neal Kidney tells the story of her family’s experience in World War II with a skillful integration of carefully curated primary sources — the letters Leora saved and family photographs — historical research to provide clarity and context for the events and creative nonfiction to bring the family members to life.
The structure of the book is equally impressive: it follows the Iowa farming seasons. In addition to providing unity and cohesion for the book as a whole, the details of the work on the farm each season of the year also provide a good history of the role of the family farm in World War II.
As a reader, I was greatly moved by the story of the Wilson family, a testament to the time, care and love that went into the development of the book. In writing “Leora’s Letters,” Neal Kidney has ensured that the memories of her family members who sacrificed so much for their country are honored and preserved.
Equally important, the book serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t take these sacrifices or the human costs of war for granted, as World War II and the Greatest Generation slowly slip into the mists of history. Delbert, Donald, Danny, Dale and Junior: we won’t forget you.
Elizabeth Gauffreau writes fiction and poetry. She has worked for Granite State College, Concord, New Hampshire, and is an academic advisor, teacher and higher education administration. Her debut novel is “Telling Sonny,” published in 2018.