World War II Romance Takes Flight: With Every Letter by Sarah Sundin
A confession: I am a fairly new romance reader. I only picked up my first true romance novel about a year ago. However, I grew up hearing a true story that could be straight out of a historical romance. My grandparents met and had a shipboard romance just after World War II as they served on a displaced persons ship, transporting refugees from Europe to South America. She was a nurse, having trained in the Cadet Nurses Corps, and he was the ship’s carpenter who had spent the war as a Merchant Marine. The Cadet Nurses Corps has received some renewed attention recently as U.S. Senators, including Elizabeth Warren, have introduced a bill to give these women honorary veteran status to recognize their service and sacrifices. Primed with this real-life love story and wanting to know more about these women’s experiences, I was drawn to the first book in Sarah Sundin’s trio of romances featuring flight nurses, With Every Letter. Sundin crafts an engaging romance that centers the stories of underappreciated roles in often ignored theater of the war.
First, it’s important to note that this book is a Christian romance, and an evangelical thread runs throughout the book. Characters pray and look to Jesus as the model of leadership to emulate in their own lives. The meanings of true forgiveness and the concept of restoration are also woven into the plot. And, because this book is a Christian romance, it is a clean romance. There isn’t even a kiss until the last chapter. The plot is fairly predictable and mirrors the plot of the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner (or its modern adaptation, You’ve Got Mail), with the main characters both falling in love through writing each other anonymous letters, while their insistence on keeping their identities secret causes various misunderstandings. If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, no plot twist will be a surprise, but it’s a pleasant journey to the inevitable happy ending.
Told in alternating chapters from the point of view of the two main characters, the book opens with nurses at Walter Reed Hospital beginning a morale campaign inspired by The Shop Around the Corner: they will undertake an anonymous letter writing campaign to raise the spirits of fighting soldiers overseas.1 Lt. Philomela (Mellie) Blake, a half-Filipina nurse who believes herself to be unattractive, unlovable, and incapable of having friends, is coerced into writing a letter to ease her transfer to becoming one of the first flight nurses in the Army Nurse Corps. Her letter ends up in the hands of Lt. Tom MacGilliver, an engineer and the son of an infamous murderer and has spent his life living down his name, believing he is one uncontrolled outburst away from becoming his violent father. Tom writes his own anonymous response to Mellie’s letter, and the two continue to correspond this way calling each other “Annie” and “Ernest” as they both end up in the Mediterranean front after the invasion of North Africa.
In their letters as Annie and Ernest, Mellie and Tom tell each other everything about themselves, except their real names, ask each other for advice about the struggles they are facing, and fall in love. Mellie chronicles her struggles to make friends with the other nurses in her unit and her clashes with her bosses as she uses homeopathic treatments outside of Army regulations on her patients. With Tom’s advice, Mellie makes friends. Her nursing skills are impressive, and she wins the cooperation of her flight crew by heading off an in-air riot when the Allied patients find out they are sharing a plane with a captured, wounded German soldier. As a college-educated engineer, Tom is made a platoon leader, but writes Mellie about his leadership struggles, his attempts to get his men to respect his authority, and his reluctance to fire his weapon even when his platoon is under attack and his best friend is shot.
On one mission, Mellie is sent to Tom’s air base to evacuate one of the men in his platoon who was wounded. They meet in person several times, and Mellie figures out Tom is her anonymous correspondent, Ernest. She does not reveal her identity as Annie because she continues to believe Tom will reject her if he knew the truth. Meanwhile, Tom begins to care for Mellie in person, as well as “Annie” by letter. Finally, after a protracted campaign by Tom to reveal their real names, Mellie reveals that she is “Annie,” and the couple is happily united after declaring their love.
The plot can be predictable, especially if you know the original story, but Sundin showcases the lesser known parts of the war in a way that makes the book stand out among the many World War II love stories out there. The book’s setting itself is the most visible example of this. Most Americans know about World War II in the European theater (particularly D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the race to Berlin) and the Pacific theater (including Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima), and most popular culture depictions are set in these areas of fighting. But although the invasions of North Africa and Sicily were the first tests of the strategy used on D-Day, they are much less well-known now. Sundin is also clearly committed to making sure she got even the minor details right, although sometimes how she works her research into the story can feel a bit clunky. For example, she has Tom’s platoon recite the names of the fighter planes used by the different combatants while taking cover during an air raid, as she provides an explanatory aside. The rest of the combat scenes are painted in fairly broad strokes, which makes the sudden inclusion of fine details feel forced and can take the reader out of the flow of the story.
Sundin’s choices of her main characters’ occupations also highlight the lesser known parts of the war. The stereotype of men during World War II is of the infantryman on the front lines fighting the Nazis in combat. In reality, it took a lot of troops to support those doing the fighting: quartermasters, medical personnel like Mellie, and engineers like Tom. Sundin describes Tom working, managing the process of creating functional airfields out of harsh conditions and dealing with German or Italian snipers. Tom’s work is also the setting for some of his most pivotal development. He is at his lowest when he lets his closest friend get shot by a German sniper because of his reluctance to kill the enemy, and he comes into his own as a leader when coming up with a time-saving solution for getting an air field functional.
Unfortunately, Mellie’s work scenes are not as detailed or given the same importance. While nursing was one of the few roles open to women during the war, they are not often portrayed in situations close to combat. Mellie represents one of only about 500 Army nurses who served as flight nurses and evacuated patients through air evacuation in every corner of the globe.2 Unfortunately, the work of nursing is hardly touched on in the story. Most of Mellie’s development comes as she ponders things after her nursing shifts, and most references to her nursing come when others call her out for her use of unconventional medicines, like when she gives patients willow bark when the hospital is out of aspirin.
Despite these flaws, this is a pleasant read that moves quickly and brushes over the darker sides of its setting in the middle of the war. It’s not trying for gritty realism or anything more than chaste romance, but gritty realism isn’t the point. The war serves as the setting for the story, but Sundin is at her best when she’s writing about the inner lives of her characters. Stripping everything else away this is at heart a story of two people relying on faith and each other to overcome their internal struggles and difficult pasts and learn valuable lessons. The successful romance is the payoff to this personal growth. In this way, perhaps With Every Letter is not so much a romance novel as it is a bildungsroman.
Amy Rohmiller is a public historian, archivist, and librarian who loves to bring little known stories to light. She has an M.A. in Public History from Middle Tennessee State University, and an M.S.L.I.S from Syracuse University.