Reading between the cracks
First Published August 21, 2022, 6:37am in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website
“A LETTER IN THE WALL” book review
By Eileen Brill
It’s 1971 and Joan Dumann is in a panic. She hurriedly scribbles a letter and, instead of mailing it, shoves it inside a wall of her home. Her anxiety is unmistakable as she hurriedly tries to outmaneuver her business partner, who she thinks wants her dead.
What she does not do is run.
Off with a bang this expansive, emotional Odyssean journey across time follows Joan’s trajectory from 1918 to the early ‘70s. It’s difficult to watch Joan, a clear anti-heroine, make bad decisions and mistakes, one after the other in this historical mystery based on an actual Pennsylvania case. Each one is also easy to understand as she fights her way through each day to earn respect in a society that has made her invisible.
“Anger is powerful,” Joan decides early on. “Sadness is pathetic.”
The nuances of her character are heartbreaking and astoundingly accurate, a testament to Philly native and Carnegie Mellon University grad Eileen Brill’s writing. Life is messy and complicated and so are people. The parade of characters that march in – and more importantly out – of her life make this book a constant, low-key cabaret.
This skillfully woven book is a study in the butterfly effect. Joan’s daily life is not remarkable but, taken together as a whole, her actions across time are. The book asks the question: Can meaningful connections be made in small moments and, over time, if those connections are broken can they survive in feeling?
Ms. Brill’s throwback writing defies modern norms, almost like reading an updated Hardy Boys mystery. The difference is subtle, like Times New Roman vs. Arial, but it’s noticeable and lends itself to the overall effect of the time travel throughout the book.
Our first inkling into Joan’s psyche comes early in the book in her flirtatious interactions with men and overt jealousy of some women in her life. She can’t get out of her own way, in part because she was born into a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family and her sense of entitlement is strong, even as she is constantly denigrated for being a woman.
Throughout the book she bucks the patriarchal system time and time again even when she knows it’s detrimental to her well being. Not only does she not run from fear, she barrels toward it head-on and would rather be dead than not earn respect from those in her orbit.
The wave of feminism in which a reader was born will directly correlate to the level of anger and amount of cringing that happens as the story unfolds. Watch Joan navigate a world in which Virginia Slims and Calgon were marketed for women who needed such things to calm delicate nerves. These small, well-crafted pop culture details throughout the book lend themselves to eyerolls on Joan’s behalf.
Some readers may feel overwhelmed by the scope of this book. Yet even if one can’t recount every detail that happens to Joan across the decades, the feelings that linger after the final page will stick around and burn a hole in your pillow late at night as you think through her complexity and motivations.
Instead of drowning in the pages of decades Joan’s strong character drives the book and, at times, it’s easy to believe she wills each sentence that propels the book forward. At the same time the distress over her circumstances and bad decisions is gripping.
Perhaps what resonates most about “A Letter in the Wall” is that Joan could be anyone. The societal rush to judgment – especially in an age of cancel culture – might be strong but mistakes are human, as is learning to forgive others.
Yet learning to forgive yourself is the most difficult thing and one Joan teaches the reader how to do through extraordinary circumstances.
Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist and Teaching Assistant Professor of Journalism at Lehigh University.