From Love Letters to Memoir

I stood by my table of books at Chapters in Peterborough earlier this month for a book signing, just inside the front door. Several people stopped by the table to talk about memoirs.

Suddenly a familiar face with a dazzling smile appeared. Joanne Culley www.joanneculley.com who took my course on memoir writing four years ago, had also just published her book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. We had talked about trading books via email, but I didn’t know whether or not she would be able to get free that afternoon.


Joanne Culley and her new book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters

Lo and behold, there she was! I could hardly wait to have a quick look to see how she had made a story of the over 600 letters her parents wrote during the Second World War. Letters she had talked about during the course.

I spent the weekend reading her book. It’s a love story, a history lesson, and a daughter’s tribute to the parents who raised her. The book is strong, and you realize while reading it the enormous amount of historical research Joanne did. It’s a story well worth reading.

One thing I really love about this memoir is that each chapter begins with a few lines of a song that was popular during the war. For example, chapter eleven begins with lines from But Not for Me by Ira and George Gershwin.

I knew it had taken two years to complete. When I asked her what kept her motivated to keep going, she said, “the continuing support of her Group of Sevenish writing friends.” Seven of the people who took my memoir course that spring kept meeting … twice a month! For four years! And are still going. She added, “We really keep after each other, get on anyone’s case who comes with nothing written.”

Love in the Air: Second World War Letters is available in hardcover, soft cover and e-book formats from friesenpress.com and online book stores. It was released on May 8, the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day). The book includes letter excerpts, historical background, dramatized scenes, and photos.

Thank you, Joanne, for abbreviating the book’s introduction for this blog post:

This year two significant milestones from the Second World War are being celebrated – the 70th anniversaries of Victory in Europe Day on May 8 and Victory in Japan Day on August 15. These are no longer just remote war anniversaries for me, but now have more personal significance since the death of my father. While clearing out the family’s house, I came upon a box of neatly stacked bundles of airmail letters, and a note saying, “Letters written from 1943 to 1946 between Harry and Helen.”

Harry & Helen, 1943 cropped1

Harry Culley and Helen Reeder, 1943

Inside were 600 letters from each to the other while my father was serving overseas as a musician in the Royal Canadian Air Force Band. During the war, my mother, Helen Reeder, worked in the Department of Munitions and Supply in Ottawa, and later at the Toronto Transportation Commission, as it was then known. As I read through the letters, I discovered not just declarations of love, but also detailed descriptions of what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

Harry Culley endured bombings in London, the overall scarcity of food, and the exhaustion of travelling by trains, buses and army trucks with irregular schedules to perform in concerts, parades and dances. But he and the other band members knew that their music was keeping up the morale of soldiers and civilians alike.

He wrote to her about accompanying the famed Irving Berlin during his cabaret at the Pavilion in Bournemouth and playing for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the Beaver Club in London. He tried to explain to her what a buzz bomb sounds like: “Just imagine the biggest truck you’ve ever seen going up a street like Winnett [where Helen lived in Toronto].There’d be quite a vibration in the houses.”

On VE Day, Harry wrote, “This is the day we’ve all been waiting for. It’s pretty hard to realize now that the war is over . . . we went down to the beach [at Bournemouth] where there was a huge bonfire going on the sand with hundreds of people around it singing old songs.”

Of their letters, Helen wrote, “We’ll bind them up and read them over about twenty years from now.” I don’t think they ever did sit down together to re-read those letters – they were too busy living the lives they had dreamed about all those years before.

Image34Harry & Helen wedding

Helen and Harry Culley on their wedding day, 1946

I asked Joanne how she felt about the letters now, having initially felt they might be private. “I’m glad I read the letters,” she said. “They have given me insight into their lives as young people in love, amidst global turmoil.”

Are there any letters or other artifacts from your family that you can use as a starting point to write your story of the past?

10 comments on “From Love Letters to Memoir

  1. I’m one of the “Sevenish” in Peterborough, and we couldn’t be more proud of the successful launch of Joanne’s book. It – and our continued meetings over four years – are a tribute to the impact of your too-short workshop Diane. And congratulations on getting a lot of that down in your new book.


  2. Oh, boy! I’ve read the first few pages and this looks like a well-written, heartwarming read.


  3. A lovely and informative post, Diane. My congrats and best wishes to the author.


  4. Wonderful story! Joanne you are an inspiration to all of us to get these stories written, transcribed, told while we can!


  5. Marnie, so true. Joanne is a wonderful role model for staying with a writing project, keeping it alive by adding to it regularly. Feeding it with new pages. Eventually it grows up and flies away into the world!


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