The Hatbox Letters

The Hatbox Letters, by Canadian author Beth Powning, was a nice enough book with which to start the year.

And if it sounds to you like I’m damning it with faint praise — well, you’re not wrong. As the book jacket summarizes:

Facing her second winter since the death of her husband, Kate Harding receives an unexpected gift: several old hatboxes filled with letters and other ghostly ephemera from her grandparents’ eighteenth-century Connecticut house. In an unfathomable story of love, grief and renewal, Kate, alone in her semi-rural New Brunswick home, pieces together the hidden tragedy at her family’s heart, and with its discovery, begins to connect the strands of her unravelled life.

Now, I don’t mind a quiet, contemplative story. However, this one is just a little too quiet, especially considering it meanders on for 350 pages and next to nothing actually happens.

The two high points of the book are the simple but movingly-recounted stories about Kate’s grandparents revealed in the hatbox documents, and the very well-articulated and refreshing journey the protagonist takes from crippling grief to a reawakening into her own life.

The Hatbox Letters by Beth PowningUnfortunately, there are times where following her through her journey is sort of a shadow-version of experiencing her soul-deadening grief and agonizingly gradual healing yourself, so even where the book succeeds, it isn’t necessarily a “fun” read.

As for the hatbox documents and the story of Kate’s grandparents, this other successful component of the book requires a bit of narrative gymnastics, too: Kate learns bits and pieces of the story from a collection of journals and letters that she finds, piecing together further details from her own memory of the settings, and from the receipts and other evidential documents included in the hatboxes. You can see where I’m going with this: coaxing an engaging read out of such a bare-bones retelling of the story would be quite a challenge.

Our author gets around this challenge by using Kate’s imagined versions of the events as a narrative voice. Which works well enough, but leaves the reader with the odd impression that we’re either reading about people who exist primarly as fantasy of the protagonist, or that Kate is quite alarmingly intuitive. Or perhaps psychic.

I also felt that the book would have really benefitted from the author lightening up on her writing style where dialogue is concerned — and this includes inner dialogue. Witness a passage which is supposed to be what Kate thinks to herself. To set the scene, it has been about a week since Kate went bird-watching at the beach and ran into an old friend, someone whose family she, her husband and their kids used to go camping with. During their conversation, he revealed to her that his son had died, the result of either suicide or a mountain-climbing accident — something which clearly torments him. He phones, suggesting that he stop by and visit, and this is what she thinks to herself:

Oh God. Such revelations as he made to me should be like a feather studied, carried in one’s hand for an afternoon, then cast back to the sands. He can’t expect what occurred because of context and circumstance–our surprised recognition of one another like wine within the glass of the afternoon’s driftwood, pink-flowered sea rocket, plover cry and sea wind–to be repeated in my kitchen with its fly-specked Audubon calendar and the sad smell of tea.

I’m sorry, but no: just no. It’s one thing for descriptive passages by a disembodied narrative voice to be constructed in this artful, writerly type of prose. But this is supposed to be an actual thought in the mind of a real woman: and not one who happens to be a writer or a poet herself. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever actually read to this:

Here’s a prime example of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” offered by an English professor from the University of Phoenix:

The professor told his class one day: “Today we will experiment with a new form called the tandem story. The process is simple. Each person will pair off with the person sitting to his or her immediate right. As homework tonight, one of you will write the first paragraph of a short story. You will e-mail your partner that paragraph and send another copy to me.

The partner will read the first paragraph and then add another paragraph to the story and send it back, also sending another copy to me. The first person will then add a third paragraph, and so on back-and-forth.

Remember to re-read what has been written each time in order to keep the story coherent. There is to be absolutely NO talking outside of the e-mails and anything you wish to say must be written in the e-mail. The story is over when both agree a conclusion has been reached.”

The following was actually turned in by two of his English students: Rebecca and Gary.


(first paragraph by Rebecca)

At first, Laurie couldn’t decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Carl, who once said, in happier times, that he liked chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Carl. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question.


(second paragraph by Gary)

Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an air-headed asthmatic bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. “A.S. Harris to Geostation 17,” he said into his transgalactic communicator. “Polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far…” But before he could sign off a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship’s cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.



He bumped his head and died almost immediately, but not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for him. Soon afterwards, Earth stopped its pointless hostilities towards the peaceful farmers of Skylon 4. “Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and Space Travel,” Laurie read in her newspaper one morning. The news simultaneously excited her and bored her. She stared out the window, dreaming of her youth, when the days had passed unhurriedly and carefree, with no newspaper to read, no television to distract her from her sense of innocent wonder at all the beautiful things around her. “Why must one lose one’s innocence to become a woman?” she pondered wistfully.



Little did she know, but she had less than 10 seconds to live. Thousands of miles above the city, the Anu’udrian mothership launched the first of its lithium fusion missiles. The dim-witted, wimpy peaceniks who pushed the Unilateral Aerospace disarmament Treaty through the Congress had left Earth a defenseless target for the hostile alien empires who were determined to destroy the human race. Within two hours
after the passage of the treaty, the Anu’udrian ships were on course for Earth, carrying enough firepower to pulverize the entire planet. With no one to stop them, they swiftly initiated their diabolical plan. The lithium fusion missile entered the atmosphere unimpeded. The President, in his top-secret mobile submarine headquarters on the ocean floor off the coast of Guam, felt the inconceivably massive explosion, which vaporized poor, stupid Laurie.



This is absurd. I refuse to continue this mockery of literature. My writing partner is a violent, chauvinistic semi-literate adolescent.



Yeah? Well, my writing partner is a self-centered tedious neurotic whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of Valium. “Oh, shall I have chamomile tea? Or shall I have some other sort of F–KING TEA??? Oh no, what am I to do? I’m such an air-headed bimbo who reads too many Danielle Steele novels!”











Go drink some tea – whore.



A+ – I really liked this one.

It shook me right out of the narrative because you could feel the author’s stamp all over it. I almost suspect that she came up with that passage independently of the rest of the text — either as part of another story, or as a fragment that came to her at some other time — and she was just looking for a way to slip it into the narrative. Because it feels really shoehorned. And in general, this over-stylisation crops up in her dialogue in a few places.

Which isn’t to say that the book is garbage. It was an enjoyable enough read, and I actually felt uplifted when I reached the end. I would probably only recommend it to someone specifically looking for a book that explores concepts like grief and healing, however, and not so much someone just looking for a book recommendation in general.

From the archives, written January 5th, 2006.

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