Friday, August 23, 2013

Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran

Book: Letters Never Sent
Author: Sandra Moran
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing

The year was 1933.

A severe worldwide economic recession gave way to “The Great Depression,” Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, a tsunami roared across the pacific island of Japan and claimed 3,000 lives, and an earthquake in China took more than 9,000. 

In 1933, Prohibition in the United States was repealed by constitutional amendment; the Marx Brothers released the iconic film, Duck Soup; FM radio was patented; and Joan Collins, Elly Ameling, Nina Simone, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Carol Burnett, Julie Newmar, Jayne Mansfield, and Joan Rivers were all born. 

It was also the year that Winston Churchill stood before the world and warned of the dangers of German rearmament. And on Northerly Island in Chicago, The Century of Progress World's Fair opened to more than 48 million visitors.

"I haven't been out of work since the day I took my pants off."

                                                              - Sally Rand, Burlesque Dancer

Sally Rand
Chicago Tribune Archive
With seemingly everything in the world going to hell in a handbasket, the forward thinking organizers of Chicago's 1933 World's Fair used the very idea of progress to buoy national optimism during the years following the Great Contraction and the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The fair implemented a model that envisioned a promising future through the rapid advancement of science and technology, and the application of those advancements to everyday life for everyday people. The fair housed a wide array of experimental buildings that included a spiffy Hall of Science, the U.S. Federal Building, the General Motors Building, and the Sears Pavilion. It also presented futuristic model houses like George Frederick Keck’s twelve-sided House of Tomorrow, and foreign exhibition areas that included the Italian Pavilion, the Belgian Village, and the Streets of Paris—where famed fan dancer Sally Rand performed.

As an aside, the lovely Ms. Rand was once arrested four times in the same day for indecent exposure—curiously, though, she was clothed on each occasion.

And that brings up an interesting point about this wonderful concept of the Century of Progress—and the fact that it had very little to do with social justice, equality, gender-related accomplishments, or personal freedom and expression. The stark pronouncement of the fair's motto, "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms," was challenged by women like Ms. Rand, whose provocative fan dance became a persistent symbol of the fair, despite that fact that women were largely ignored by the fair's corporate leadership.

Surprisingly, in advance of the preceding World's Fair of 1893, U.S. federal legislation had mandated the inclusion of women's exhibits in the World's Columbian Exposition. In 1933, no such congressional mandate existed, with the result that women found little to no representation in the Century of Progress Exposition, apart from midway shows where they were represented as commodities. There was no Woman's Building, and exhibits depicting the contributions of women to America's national progress were few and far between.

Unwittingly, the fair showed that progress in the area of women's rights would not automatically follow from the growing power of corporations and advancing technology in American life. And a full eighty years latter, there’s still a 23 percent wage gap between men and women, and angry zealots are finding new and diabolical methods to keep women barefoot and pregnant, and queers running for their lives.

“Century of Progress,” my ass.

In Letters Never Sent, the debut novel by Sandra Moran, the reader follows the journey of three women who traverse the murky waters of societal conventions, familial duty, and self-acceptance. When young Katherine Henderson flees her small Kansas town and an unwanted marriage proposal for the bright lights of Chicago, she finds a career, fast friends, and an independence she has always craved. Not long after getting settled in her job behind the glove counter at Sears & Roebuck, she meets the bold and outspoken feminist and lesbian, Annie. Katherine fights her unexpected attraction to Annie, but finds that some things are stronger than her fears.

Sixty-six years later, Katherine’s estranged daughter, Joan, travels to Lawrence, Kansas to clean out her recently deceased mother’s home and prepare it for sale. Much to her surprise, she finds an old suitcase containing a wooden box full of trinkets, a spent bullet casing, and a packet of sealed love letters written to a person identified only by the letter “A.”  As Joan begins to read these unsent letters, she discovers a woman completely different from the cold and uncompromising mother of her youth—a woman who had loved deeply and lost that love to circumstances both in, and beyond, her control. As the reader goes back in time to discover the secrets that Katherine and Annie shared, a murder is revealed, and Joan learns that lessons of the past go a long way toward helping her unravel the choices she’s made, and ultimately find the strength to have the life she deserves.

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair makes a brief and exultant appearance in Letters Never Sent, but the metaphor it creates frames the entire story. The metaphor presented by The Century of Progress gets readers to think about the persistent and enduring war on women and the LGBT community. It’s relevant to Ms. Moran’s debut novel, because it brought about amazing and unheralded technological advancements, as well as pockets of understanding and acceptance for things once considered outside of religious and societal convention. However, The Century of Progress did little to ameliorate the long list of inequalities and humiliations that still are being inflicted upon people who do not have the ability to control their gender or sexual orientations.

Letters Never Sent is a crisp, well-written story that is chock full of strong imagery, indelible characters, and conflict that almost any woman can relate to in one way or another. Her transitions between the past and present work seamlessly, and she is able to capture the floodwaters of joy, love, heartbreak, and sorrow with unhurried profundity. Unlike textbook romances that follow ritualistic formulas that lead to a Happily Ever After, Letters Never Sent is more a love story and a cautionary tale—prodding each of us to examine the decisions we’ve made or would have made, had we been faced with similar situations.

Sandra Moran
Ms. Moran skillfully creates early mid-century female characters who challenge societal convention by drinking, smoking, having pre-marital sex, and loving other women. She also makes these women vulnerable, and shows the contrast between two women: one who faces taboos head on; and another who struggles to maintain a balance between the expectations of family and society with her innate desires as a woman and a sexual creature. Beyond that, Ms. Moran also presents a modern woman who is much more like her mother than she ever could have dreamed: a woman who married and bore children more out of blind adherence to societal expectation, than out of love and desire. She, too, is a sexual creature. But it is only after truly getting to know her mother by reading her letters never sent, that she comes to terms with her right to be a happy and contented woman, professional, and mother.

Whether by great intent or good story telling, Sandra Moran gets us thinking about the evolution of women and lesbians in America. If you’re looking for a compelling love story that is not formulaic, or if you’re looking for a story that is well researched and intellectually provocative, then Letters Never Sent is one to pick up and take out for a spin.