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Letters Across the Sea

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About The Book

Inspired by a little-known chapter of World War II history, a young Protestant girl and her Jewish neighbour are caught up in the terrible wave of hate sweeping the globe on the eve of war in this powerful love story that’s perfect for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

If you’re reading this letter, that means I’m dead. I had obviously hoped to see you again, to explain in person, but fate had other plans.

1933

At eighteen years old, Molly Ryan dreams of becoming a journalist, but instead she spends her days working any job she can to help her family through the Depression crippling her city. The one bright spot in her life is watching baseball with her best friend, Hannah Dreyfus, and sneaking glances at Hannah’s handsome older brother, Max.

But as the summer unfolds, more and more of Hitler’s hateful ideas cross the sea and “Swastika Clubs” and “No Jews Allowed” signs spring up around Toronto, a city already simmering with mass unemployment, protests, and unrest. When tensions between the Irish and Jewish communities erupt in a riot one smouldering day in August, Molly and Max are caught in the middle, with devastating consequences for both their families.

1939

Six years later, the Depression has eased and Molly is a reporter at her local paper. But a new war is on the horizon, putting everyone she cares about most in peril. As letters trickle in from overseas, Molly is forced to confront what happened all those years ago, but is it too late to make things right?

From the desperate streets of Toronto to the embattled shores of Hong Kong, Letters Across the Sea is a poignant novel about the enduring power of love to cross dangerous divides even in the darkest of times—from the #1 bestselling author of The Forgotten Home Child.

Reading Group Guide

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The novel begins during the Great Depression. How has the economic downturn affected Molly, Hannah, and others in their neighbourhood?

2. Max describes Kensington as a patchwork of different communities. Using the Ryan and Dreyfus families as examples, discuss how Canada is a country of immigrants. What did they leave behind? And what problems do they still face?

3. Molly says that the Orangemen nicknamed the city “Toronto the Good,” but in the opening of the novel, we see a place teeming with unemployment, protests, and civil unrest. What people and behaviours are considered “good”? What happens to those who are thought of as second-class citizens or outsiders?

4. Did you know about the rise of anti-Semitism in Toronto before reading this book? Were you surprised to learn about the Swastika Clubs and signs banning Jews from businesses and beaches? What does the novel suggest might be some of the causes of this racial prejudice? Consider the characters of Mr. Ryan, Richie, and Phil.

5. Molly wants to become a journalist, but she drops out of school and puts her dream on hold to help her family make ends meet. Discuss the expectations of women during this time period. What opportunities are available to them? How do Molly’s and Hannah’s paths differ? How are they the same?

6. During the scene at the beach, Molly, Max, and Arnie talk about the Star and the Telegram, and the difference between bias and censorship. In light of our current media landscape, what did you make of this discussion? Do you think we can ever know the truth?

7. Even though Molly and Max grew up together as friends, there is still a line between them that they are forbidden from crossing. What does this suggest about the bonds of family? As second-generation Canadians, do Molly and Max view community and tradition in a different light? If so, how?

8. On page 96, Mr. Ryan tells Molly that “there will come a time when it’s us versus them” and that she’ll “not be able to walk away from that.” How is this borne out in the novel? When is it not?

9. During the riot, Mr. Ryan goes after Max, thinking that he’s protecting his daughter. What does this say about the power of love, both parental and romantic? And given what we later learn about Richie, what does this scene say about the power of friendship?

10. How does the riot at Christie Pits forever change the Ryan and Dreyfus families? How does this event shape your own understanding of race relations in Canada?

11. When Molly goes to work at the Star, she is one of the few women in the newsroom. How is she treated by her colleagues? Despite trailblazers like Rhea Clyman, what stereotypes still exist?

12. When Max enlists in the army, he tells his family that “as a Canadian, it’s my duty to volunteer . . . As a Jew, I have a personal score to settle.” Discuss Max’s obligation as a Jewish Canadian. How have the events of 1933 impacted his decision so many years later?

13. In Hong Kong, Max expresses frustration about not yet seeing action. Why does Max feel so restless as opposed to someone like Richie? Does it have to do with who they are fighting for and what they left behind?

14. What are the central friendships in the novel and how are they tested? What seems to unite friends again? And what new friendships are forged?

15. Did you know about the fate of Canadian troops in the Pacific Theatre during World War II before reading about the Battle of Hong Kong? Do you agree that they shouldn’t have been sent there to begin with? How were they unprepared for the conflict they faced?

16. When Max becomes a prisoner of war, his voice drops out of the narrative. Did you think he had died in Stanley Village along with David?

17. For a long time, Molly puts her career before romance. Why does she decide to give Ian a chance? How did you feel about their blossoming relationship?

18. After the Battle of Hong Kong, Molly throws herself into researching German and Japanese POW camps and she even visits the camp in Bowmanville. What are some of the differences between the prisons? Molly says, “I don’t think anyone, in war or not, has the right to become monsters.” What do you make of her statement?

19. Discuss the theme of storytelling in the novel. Consider Molly’s and Max’s grandparents, Mr. Rabinowitz, and the many veterans from both world wars. What is accomplished when the characters share their stories with one another? What happens when they don’t?

20. Consider the portrayal of PTSD in the characters of Max, Jimmy, Liam, and Mark. In what ways do they struggle to adapt to life after witnessing the horrors of war? What scars do they have? And what helps them heal?

21. When Molly interviews Max about his experience as a prisoner of war, he describes the moment they saw the American planes flying overhead and says, “after four years of surviving, we were finally getting the chance to live again.” What’s the difference between surviving and living?

22. Max returns from war guilty that he survived when so many others did not. What makes him tell his story to Molly and Ian? What did you make of his decision to remain anonymous?

23. What role do letters play in the novel?

24. Discuss the importance of forgiveness. What other characters redeem themselves by the end of the novel? How do the losses of war soften their hearts?

25. Were you surprised by Richie’s revelation? What reasons does he give for his actions the day of the riot, and after?

26. In many ways, the novel is an epic love story. What do you think drew Molly and Max together in the first place? And what continues to bind them to one another after so many years?

27. Consider the title of the novel. What does Letters Across the Sea symbolize?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Walk the streets of Toronto with Giles Hodge as he takes viewers through the night of the Christie Pits Riot in “History Happens Here: The Riot at Christie Pits.” https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/video/history-happens-here-riot-christie-pits

2. Hear from firsthand survivors of the Battle of Hong Kong by watching The Fence, a documentary written and directed by Viveka Melki. In this film, she interviews two POW survivors as well as a young girl who was trapped in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. http://thefencedoc.ca/

Or check out Brian McKenna’s 1991 film, Savage Christmas: Hong Kong 1941, on the National Film Board website for a critique of Canada’s involvement in the Pacific Theatre. https://www.nfb.ca/film/savage_christmas_hong_kong_1941/

3. In chapter 18, Molly mentions the internment camps where more than 90 per cent of Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia were detained and dispossessed under the War Measures Act. Joy Kogawa was one such girl. Read her award-winning novel, Obasan, to find out more about this dark chapter in Canadian history.

About The Author

Photograph by Nicola Davison, Snickerdoodle Photography

Genevieve Graham is the USA TODAY and #1 bestselling author of eleven novels, including The Forgotten Home Child, which has been optioned for TV, Letters Across the Sea, and Bluebird. She is passionate about breathing life back into history through tales of love and adventure. She lives in Alberta. Visit her at GenevieveGraham.com or on Twitter and Instagram @GenGrahamAuthor.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 27, 2021)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982156640

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Raves and Reviews

“Readers weary of European-centric World War II dramas will delight in Genevieve Graham’s Letters Across the Sea, which centers on the courage and tenacity of Canadian soldiers, veterans, and home-front fighters. A budding love affair between Irish aspiring-journalist Molly and Jewish medical student Max is derailed first by a shocking anti-Semitic riot, then by the winds of war which send Max to fight in the Pacific as Molly carves herself a niche as a reporter. A lost letter has the power to bring them back into each other’s lives, but at what cost? A tender, moving tale illuminating a fascinating lesser-known chapter of World War II history!”
— KATE QUINN, New York Times bestselling author of The Huntress and The Alice Network

“An epic tale of enduring love, loyalty and heroism, and a haunting portrayal of one of the most tragic yet overlooked battles of WWII, Letters Across the Sea has all the ingredients of a historical fiction masterpiece. Genevieve Graham has delivered once more a powerful, devastating, and ultimately redemptive story that stirs the heart in profound and lasting ways.”
— ROXANNE VELETZOS, internationally bestselling author of The Girl They Left Behind

“I always look forward to diving into a Genevieve Graham novel, because I know I’ll be swept away by her meticulous evocation of the past, her memorable and wonderfully observed characters, and her unmatchable flair for shining a light into the neglected corners of our shared past. In Letters Across the Sea, she sends us from 1930s Toronto, then under siege by a relentless plague of anti-Semitism, to a different battleground altogether: the last stand of Canadian troops at the Battle of Hong Kong. This is history worth remembering—and fiction that both enlightens and entertains.”
— JENNIFER ROBSON, internationally bestselling author of The Gown

“Graham further cements her status as one of the preeminent writers of Canadian twentieth century historical fiction by illuminating a dark and complex chapter in the nation’s past in the decade leading up to World War II. With meticulous research and vivid prose and memorable characters, Graham demonstrates once more her unique ability to inspire, educate, and entertain.”
— PAM JENOFF, New York Times bestselling author of The Woman with the Blue Star

“A beautiful book that tells a little-known chapter of history with incredible humanity. From the neighbourhoods of Toronto to the battlefields of Hong Kong, Genevieve Graham weaves exquisite research, nail-biting tension, and rich characters into a sweeping novel of courage, betrayal, and reconciliation. I loved it!”
— JULIA KELLY, internationally bestselling author of The Light Over London

“A compelling story, meticulously researched and beautifully told—to the point that I was moved to tears on several occasions. Graham is a master storyteller with a gift to touch the heart. I’m so happy to have discovered her work.”
— SANTA MONTEFIORE, bestselling author of The Temptation of Gracie

“Inspired by a little-known chapter of World War II history—including Toronto’s race riot at Christie Pits—a young Protestant girl and her Jewish neighbour are caught up in the terrible wave of hate sweeping the globe on the eve of war in Letters Across the Sea, powerful love story from Genevieve Graham, bestselling author of The Forgotten Home Child.”
— 49th Shelf

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