Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present

ed. Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler

Dial Press, 2005

824 pages

Several years ago, I worked as a book reviewer for the local newspaper. Every few weeks, I dropped by the paper’s downtown office and browsed through a small room full of soon-to-be-published books.  There was just one rule: take as many books as you like, but review almost everything you take.  The gig didn’t pay much, but I got to keep the books.  All in all, a pretty sweet deal.

Last year, I had to cull through my book collection when we moved to a new house.  I ended up giving away a lot of the books I had reviewed, but Women’s Letters stayed firmly on the shelf. At 800-plus pages, it takes up more than its fair share of my limited book space, but it’s worth every inch.

Anthologies are a dime a dozen.  Think of a literary genre, subgenre, type of writer, whatever–chances are, there’s an anthology for it.  But this one stood out to me because it’s so beautifully edited, and the content is far from predictable.

Divided into sections by historical period, the book provides context through a series of pithy timelines and brief explanatory paragraphs.  For those interested in historical and cultural trivia, this contextual material is entertaining reading in and of itself.  We learn how often 18th-century Americans bathed, who invented the fortune cookie, and when bar codes first made their appearance.

But the real beauty of the book, of course, is the letters.  Grunwald and Adler have cobbled together a masterful mishmash of the extraordinary and the ordinary, the expected and the unexpected. Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, and Marilyn Monroe share page space with women who could be your mom, your grandma, or your best friend.  And they are all writing about anything and everything.

There are epistles from the front lines of wars, fan letters to celebrities, love letters, and notes to doctors.  Some are a single line, while others go on for pages or are part of a lengthy exchange.  Some freeze a historic moment in time, others are about the mundane details of daily life.  All are tremendously interesting.

Moreover, the authors (and recipients) are from all walks of life.  They come from a wide variety of socieconomic groups, races, occupations, and regions.  Almost any girl should be able to find herself in these pages.

This is obviously not the kind of book you read straight through.  But it’s an excellent choice to have on the den table or the class bookshelf, where a teenage girl can pick it up and read a little at a time.  It’s the kind of book you can hand her apropos of a particular project or issue, a way to remind her that women have been there, done that for centuries–and have come out stronger and smarter because of it.

What woman’s letters would you like the girls in your life to read?

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