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Letters Across the Sea

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.

Chapter One: Molly one MOLLY


Just before turning onto our lawn, I stopped, pulled off my shoe, then hopped on one foot, needing to pour out a small handful of pebbles. They’d snuck in through the hole at the toe, and I didn’t want to track them inside. I’d gotten used to the routine and barely noticed it anymore. It was so much better than leaky boots in the winter.

As soon as I stepped inside, the smell of corned beef and cabbage coming from the kitchen almost overwhelmed me, wafting like old socks through the house. Mum would be annoyed I hadn’t been home to help prepare dinner, but Mr. Palermo had needed me to stay a little later. Fortunately, he’d sent me home with vegetables, though they were a bit droopy. That was one of the benefits of working at a greengrocer. I laid the sad-looking carrots and greens on the counter so I could snap open my purse, then I dropped my weekly earnings into the rusty Folger’s coffee can on the counter, which I privately called the Ryan Family’s Friday Night Tax Bucket.

At the clanking of the coins, my mother turned from the pot on the stove. The circles under her eyes looked darker than usual, and at the sight of them, I felt a pang of guilt that I hadn’t been home sooner. At one time, Mum had taken pride in her appearance. On the mantel were framed photos of her and Dad, taken long before I was born. Above her lacy white collar, her narrow chin was lifted with determination, her dark hair striking, and her expression direct; she’d been in the midst of the suffragette movement, her mind a hundred years away from raising children during a depression. Then there was the photo of her, pregnant with me, holding the little hands of Richie and Jimmy. All alone and raising three babies while Dad was at war. No wonder she looked tired. Now her face was lined, and there were hints of grey at her temples, put there by the efforts of keeping our house of seven running on next to nothing. I missed her smile, and her laughter most of all. The wages my father, brothers, and I brought in each week were so meagre, she’d started taking on mending jobs on top of everything else she was doing. It was too much.

“Thought you’d never get here,” she said, brushing straggling wisps from her forehead. “Your father will be home any minute, and the table still needs setting.”

“I’ll just put these vegetables in the cellar first,” I said.

I headed downstairs, into the earthy darkness, and placed the vegetables in the coolest spot of the cellar, away from the canned food. Not for the first time, I wished we had a little white refrigerator like my best friend Hannah had. She and her family, the Dreyfuses, lived just across the street, and I spent a lot of my time over there. Last week, Hannah’s mother had poured me a glass of lemonade, and I could still feel that ice-cold drink trickling down my throat. But for my family to save up the five hundred dollars needed for a refrigerator, we’d have to fill at least ten tax buckets, plus we’d still need to eat. Pushing the thought from my mind, I returned to the kitchen where my oldest brother, Richie, was already sitting at the table, flipping through the newspaper with a frown on his face. I peeked over his shoulder and read a headline about President Roosevelt initiating his New Deal domestic reform program. I wished the president luck on that. Any kind of relief from this Depression was needed in the worst way.

“Good day at work?” I asked.

He shrugged. “You know how it is. Aisles are so empty I could open a bowling alley. Why would anyone come to a hardware store if they can’t afford to build anything?”

I felt bad for him, but not surprised. With businesses closing down all over the city, we all wondered how long he’d be able to keep that job.

“You coming to the game tonight?” I asked, hoping to lift his spirits. “It’s the season opener.”

“Probably not. I’ve got things to do.”

Richie and I had always been close. He was four years older than me, but we’d grown up doing mostly the same things. He was the one who had taught me how to play baseball, with him pitching and me swinging the bat, both of us with our matching red hair and freckles. But once I was old enough to really help Mum around the house, I didn’t have as much time to play. I still went to watch games as often as I could, though. Going to baseball games with my friends and family was one of my favourite things to do, and it was also one of the rare free activities in the city. These days, free was important.

Mum gestured for me to set the table, and I got out the old china plates, careful not to chip them more than they already were. Richie lifted his elbows so I could slide his plate beneath the newspaper. I had just placed the last fork on the table when I heard Dad’s heavy tread on the doorstep. Richie straightened automatically, and my mother smoothed her hair. That was the effect Sergeant Garret Ryan had on people. As the door opened, my three other brothers trundled down the stairs, somehow sensing he was home.

Dad stepped inside and took off his hat as Mum bustled to greet him. He was thick in the middle with a shock of bright orange hair and piercing green eyes, and when he wore his police uniform as he did now, he could be pretty imposing. But around Mum, Dad was a pussycat.

He leaned down to give her a peck on the cheek. “Hello, love,” he said, then, more gruffly, “Sounds like a herd of elephants in here.”

“Quiet, everyone,” Mum said, taking his coat and hat. “Your father’s had a long day.”

I bit my tongue. Hadn’t we all? For the past four years I’d worked ten-hour days, six days a week in the back room of Palermo’s greengrocer. There, I sorted through crates, picking out the rotten food before stocking the front of the store with the good stuff. Little jobs like that. Most of the time it was quiet around the store. Delivery days like today were hectic, but I liked the busyness. It was rare these days.

The stock market had crashed when I was fourteen. I still remember that day. It was October—a Thursday, I thought. I had been excited, walking home from school, eager to start reading The Great Gatsby for a book report, but the streets felt tense, with everyone avoiding each other’s eyes. Puzzled, I studied the men standing around the sidewalks, wondering why they weren’t working inside. Most of their faces were buried in newspapers. Some turned away when I looked, but not quickly enough for me to miss the fact that they were crying. I’d never seen a man cry before. When Dad got home, he sat us all down at the kitchen table and explained that the whole world had changed, not just our city. His gaze clouded with regret as he told me I would have to drop out of school, and he was going to speak with Mr. Palermo about hiring me. I hadn’t understood at first. In that moment, all I could think about was my book report.

I knew the crash was serious, but the reality didn’t sink in until the next night. Every Friday, Dad brought Mum a bouquet of flowers. That Friday was the first time I ever remembered him coming home empty-handed. To me, the flowers were before. The empty vase was now.

I wasn’t the only girl who had to drop out of school, but my friend Hannah never did. Her father owned a factory in the fashion district on Spadina, so he would manage, she told me. Richie had already graduated. My second oldest brother, Jimmy, didn’t go back to school. Only Mark and Liam were young enough that they got to stay. I was ashamed of the envy I felt, watching my best friend and my younger brothers leave for school every morning. Then one day after work, Dad found me out on the front porch and handed me a package.

“Open it,” he said.

I carefully removed the brown paper wrapping. “Oh, Dad,” I whispered. I skimmed my fingertips over the cover of my very own copy of The Great Gatsby. “But we can’t afford this.”

He reached his arm around me. “I set a little money aside. I want you to know that I’m sorry about the way things have turned out. I know you love school, and as soon as things get better, you’ll go back. In the meantime, this is just a little something from me to you.”

But I didn’t go back to school. And two years later, when Mark turned fourteen, he dropped out too. Now, all of us did our part to contribute to the pot. Richie worked at the hardware store, and Mark incinerated garbage at the Wellington Street Destructor. Liam had a paper route he did before school. Mum had her sewing, and of course, Dad had his job with the police. Only Jimmy was unemployed these days. He’d been working at the Don Valley Brick Works until three months ago, when they’d had to let him go. He’d been looking for work ever since. Still, we were getting by, and we clearly weren’t the worst off. Down the street from us, the Melniks had all their furniture taken away.

“Sit down before dinner gets cold,” Mum said, carrying the pot over.

Dad took his place at the head of the table, and Mum sat opposite him. Once the rest of us had squeezed in—Mark and Liam at one side and Richie, Jimmy, and me on the other—Dad said grace. My stomach growled as we passed the meat and cabbage around, helping ourselves to the meagre offerings while leaving enough for each other. When we handed the dishes back to Mum, she placed the last two slices of corned beef on Dad’s and Richie’s plates.

“Thanks, Mum,” Richie said.

“Smells good,” Dad said kindly.

I looked at my own small plate with its lump of sickly green leaves and a single slice of meat and wished I wasn’t so hungry. I slid my fork around the edges, trying to push the food together to make it seem fuller. Then I took a bite of the corned beef and was grateful that I only had one piece. It had the same feel and taste as what I imagined shoe leather would be like.

“How was your day, dear?” Mum asked, her full attention on my father.

“Busy. There was another protest down by City Hall. Dressmakers Union this time. It’s always something.”

“They’re lucky to have jobs,” Richie said. “Maybe they should have been working instead of marching around with signs. They’d make more money that way.”

Dad nodded as he chewed. “We’d be a lot less busy, that’s for sure. Chief Draper is all about keeping ‘Toronto the Good’ in line.”

As I reluctantly took a bite of the overcooked cabbage, I pondered what was actually good about Toronto. All I’d seen lately were hundreds of homeless people lining the streets, endless demonstrations about jobs, homes, rights, and everything else under the sun, and a lot of young, unemployed men joining gangs and starting fights.

My father perked up. “Draper’s talking about plans for the Orange Day parade.”

Dad was called an Orangeman for more than just the colour of his hair. Ever since I was little, he had lectured us on the importance of our family history and the longstanding feud between Protestants and Catholics. He’d made sure we knew that way back in 1690, William of Orange had saved us from becoming second-class citizens under Catholic rule when he’d defeated King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. William’s heirs had ended up forming the Orange Order, a group dedicated to upholding the faith, and my father was a proud member, as were many of Toronto’s policemen, government officials, and labourers. Practically anyone could join the Orangemen, as long as they were Protestant.

The Orangemen had been responsible for coining the nickname “Toronto the Good.” Over the past hundred years, they had put in place many laws. The purpose of those laws, in my mind, was basically to prevent people from having fun. Like no tobogganing on Sundays. I never understood the reason for that one.

Every July 12, the Glorious Twelfth it was called, the Orange Order held a parade downtown, and my dad and the others always marched in it. I’d grown up loving the pomp and circumstance—who didn’t love a parade?—but these days, it seemed a little ridiculous. Not much more than a showy demonstration that the Orangemen were still in power. But I knew better than to mention that to my father.

“The parade always gives people something to look forward to,” Mum said, smiling.

Beside me, Jimmy took his last bite. “Is there any more?”

My father narrowed his eyes at Jimmy, looking like an orange cat ready to pounce. “You’re lucky to be getting anything at all. I work all day to put food in your mouth, and your mother slaves over the stove. You’ll eat what you’re given and be thankful for it, or you’ll have nothing.”

“Sorry I asked,” Jimmy said, a familiar note of defiance in his voice.

Jimmy had always been the kid with a cheeky remark, and he was a scrapper. In school, he’d challenged teachers whenever he could, which landed him in trouble, but he was smart, so he still managed to get good grades. Richie, on the other hand, took after our father, a strong, athletic leader who wasn’t afraid to get into a fight for a good cause. Dad didn’t mind the fighting, but he hated rebellion. He said that as a policeman he dealt with rebels all day long, and he didn’t want to come home and have to deal with another one.

The only person in the world who had ever dared speak back to my father was my seanmháthair, my grandmother. “Garret, tóg go réidh é.Be calm, she would say in Gaelic. It used to soothe him, and me as well. She’d died a year ago, but I still felt an ache in my chest, thinking of her.

“Jimmy’s playing ball tonight,” I said, trying to ease the mood. “We should all go, like we used to. He’s really fast these days. Centre field.”

Jimmy flashed me a grateful smile. “Thanks, Molly.”

Dad pushed corned beef onto his fork. “People getting fired, losing their livelihoods, us with barely enough to eat, and you want to go to a ball game. When are you kids gonna grow up?”

Jimmy stood, his chair scraping noisily along the floor. “Well, I’m not growing up today. I’m off to play ball. Can’t let the team down.”

The rest of us braced for Dad’s wrath, but it never came. He just sighed and slouched a little lower over his dinner, clearly worn. Jimmy brought his dishes to the counter then slipped out the door.

I glared at my plate, wishing I could have gone with him. I missed the days when we’d all go together, sitting with Hannah’s family, having a picnic while we cheered the teams on. Dad had been the most enthusiastic fan of all—especially when his boys were playing—and Mum would laugh at how he whooped and hollered. These days, he didn’t laugh as much, and his temper could be quick. But he was a good father. I knew he meant well for us all. It was this Depression. It was hard on everyone.

At last, we finished our meals, and I rose to collect the dishes.

“I can’t help you tonight, Molly,” Mum said. “I’ve mending to do before the morning. You’ll have to do the washing up on your own.”

My heart sank. “Can’t one of the boys help? I’m supposed to be meeting Hannah at the game.”

“You still friends with Hannah Dreyfus, are you?” Dad asked, his tone shifting from my father to Sergeant Ryan. I recognized the sound of an interrogation. He dabbed his lip with his napkin. “You know, people say it’s her kind that are responsible for all this poverty.”

I paused, unsure. “Her kind? Are you talking about Jewish people?”

“Them and their communist ideals are causing all these strikes and demonstrations. Now, I have nothing against the Dreyfuses, but times are changing. More folks are blaming Jews these days, and when tempers flare, fights break out. People are getting hurt.”

I couldn’t bite my tongue this time. “It takes two to fight.”

“Not necessarily, in my experience.”

“If it’s so dangerous, who’s going to protect Hannah and her family?” I pressed.

“You let the police worry about that. I just want you to be safe.”

I was a little surprised Richie hadn’t said anything, but he just grabbed the newspaper and left the table. He and Hannah’s brother, Max, used to be as close as Hannah and I were. They’d stuck together like brothers until Max left the city for university.

“Listen to your father,” Mum was saying. “Make friends with some of the girls at church. It’s safer. Who knows? You might meet a nice boy. You’re eighteen, after all.” Her lips tightened slightly. “Though you’ll never meet anyone with your head always in a book.”

My cheeks warmed. The fact that I spent most of my free time reading was somewhat of a sore spot between my mother and me. But books weren’t the reason I hardly dated. I just wasn’t interested in anyone. Plus, I was needed at home. I didn’t have endless time.

I carried the dishes to the sink then rolled up my sleeves. I worked quickly, but I was frustratingly aware that it probably took a whole inning. The second the last plate was back in the cupboard, I tore off my apron and ran for the door, letting it slam behind me. I sprinted past the Dreyfuses’ house, knowing Hannah would already be at the game, and jogged along Dundas West, past Mr. Connor’s bike shop, the Polish bakery, and the Italian butcher. It was about ten blocks from my home in Kensington to Trinity Bellwoods Park, and my lungs burned the closer I got, but when I heard shouts and cheers coming from the game, happy sounds that filled my heart, I picked up my speed.

I could see the teams now, their ball caps and short pants bright in the last hours of daylight, and I spotted Hannah about halfway up the hill, waving both arms to catch my attention. She was wearing the brown sweater I’d told her was my favourite, with a matching bow tied around her long black hair, and she had a big grin on her face.

Heaving for breath, I dropped beside her and scanned the orange caps of the Native Sons team along the bench, looking for my brother. “How’s the game? Has Jimmy been up?”

“Twice. He walked the first time, hit a double last inning. Where have you been?”

“Doing dishes. Don’t ask. I’m here now.”

She wiggled her eyebrows. “I know something that’ll cheer you up.”

“Oh?”

She pointed down at the Harbord Playground’s second baseman and my breath caught. I would have known that tall, dark figure any-where.

“Max is back already?” I asked. “When?”

“This morning,” she said. “He surprised my mother. I don’t think she’s fully recovered yet.”

A roar rose from the crowd as the batter cracked a line drive, but Max shot out his hand and trapped the ball.

“Three out!” Hannah cried.

I jumped to my feet with her, excited for Max even though I was supposed to be cheering for Jimmy’s team.

“Go, Max!” I shouted.

He looked up, and at the sight of his wide smile, I felt a sudden swoop in my chest. How I’d missed him! He’d left for university just before the stock market crashed and everything had changed. Seeing him now, it was like I’d gone back in time to when there were no protests, unemployment lines, or wilted vegetables, to a world that had seemed full of possibilities. I hugged Hannah to me as we cheered, buoyed by the impossible, magical idea that all our lives would turn around for the better, now that he was home. Maybe Max was our lucky charm.
Photograph by Nicola Davison, Snickerdoodle Photography

Genevieve Graham is the USA TODAY and #1 bestselling author of The Forgotten Home ChildLetters Across the SeaTides of HonourPromises to KeepCome from Away, and At the Mountain’s Edge. She is passionate about breathing life back into Canadian history through tales of love and adventure. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Visit her at GenevieveGraham.com or on Twitter and Instagram @GenGrahamAuthor.

Praise for Letters Across the Sea

“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

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