Edited by Mary Kelley
I give this book 5 stars!
In an age where the art of letter writing has nearly disappeared, Mary Kelley has gifted us with letters and poems written home by a young American soldier stationed in France during WWI. By preserving his letters, she has also succeeded in accomplishing an act of love. The teen-aged soldier who wrote those letters and poems was her father whom she met only once, two months before his death in 1959.
With that as a very touching back story, Kelley allows us to see the war (or those days during the war that he was permitted to write home about) through his very young eyes . . . eyes that saw and heard all that transformed the boy, Hubert Kelly, into a man who survived the war and did later become a writer and poet. He also married three times and left each of his wives with young children. We can only assume that, in some ways, he was left with scars never examined, which consequently led him to make personal life choices after the war that remain sadly questionable.
Yet, all of what he saw from the early days of soldiering to the bleakest days of the war itself intensified his need to write, to develop his voice as a writer.* His daughter, Mary–after receiving a huge box of faded letters found in an attic by one of her step-brothers–has chosen to share him with us. In memorializing her father, a man who did not know her, she acquaints us with the young Hubert Williams Kelley and WWI itself as he experienced it.
His letters take us from his first days of being enlisted in the army engineer corps at Camp Gaillard when he wrote to his Mother saying: “I have been here on the Mississippi two days, and have come to the conclusion that it will either kill me or make a man of me. . .” to sharing his observations once in England–observations that are already becoming those of a writer with a poet’s eye and heart. “England is certainly a beautiful country. It is not the wild beauty of America, but it is a cultivated, neat, clean cut beauty, the result of hundreds of years of plowing and pruning–of careful, precise gardening. The villages are crowded, but they are so neat with narrow lanes, square gardens of pink and purple, and their infinite numbers of thorn and yew hedges, that one becomes attached to them at first sight.” He concludes that letter, writing: “By the time this reaches you, I shall be in France and Grace and Kathleen[ his sisters] will be in school. Strange, isn’t it. But this is a school for me . . . . . This is a great cause–the Allies need all the men possible. They need me.”
We get to know Hubert as, no doubt his daughter Mary did, reading his letters as a young American patriot who understood the “cause” for which he chose to fight. Of the march into London he wrote: “Women and children with three years of lost men, sons, and husbands, watched with solemn faces and hope as they greeted the newly arrived troops. . . . . . . There could be no greater message of cheer and consolation in a time of a war-weariness than the message in the eyes and gait of every American soldier passed through . . . . . . .That message was, ‘We mean to see it through.’ ’’Concluding, he described hearing “the sounds of the shells, the howitzers, and the machine guns. Sleep was out of the question that first night. They had watched from trains the desolate landscape of the war where three years of battle had left scars and leveled villages, with only crumbling walls remaining, trenches running in all directions.”
While it is all too tempting to share his letters from the remainder of the book–all of which are incredibly detailed and memorable–I will quote only from one written upon his arrival in France: “At last the sun has come into a clear blue sky which is more characteristic of France than the gray, drizzling, muddy weather we have had for so long. The moon is full now and rises pale and silvery behind the deep green fir trees over the hill. It is a sight to be remembered.”
And as his letters home about WWI reveal so much, so does what is included of his return to France as a war correspondent during WWII.
Mary Kelley’s book of her father’s letters is a treasure of recorded history–personal, factual, heart-felt.
A must read for students of history, for anyone who loves to read and to better understand the complexities and wonders of the human spirit.
*Several of his wartime poems were published in the New York Herald and in the Paris edition of Stars and Stripes. He later became a news reporter for the Kansas City Star and in the 1930s he moved east to write and edit for Crowell Collier Publications. For several years, he was editor of the American Magazine, for which he also wrote until 1950.