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Learning History from Personal Letters

I recently finished reading a second book by Joy Neal Kidney. The first one I read was actually her second, soon-to-be-published book, Leora's Dexter Stories. The one I just finished reading was her first: Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family during World War II, published in 2019.

The more recent title covers the family's history during the trying years of the Great Depression. The older book deals with the family's experiences in World War II. Although the two books were written out of chronological order, reading the second book first actually made it easier for me to follow the narrative in Leora's Letters. Nonetheless, each book is a standalone that can be read separately from the other, but reading both of them is even more satisfying.

For reference material, Kidney had a treasure trove of hundreds of letters exchanged among the various family members (and there were a lot of them!) throughout the pre-war and wartime years. Those letters cast well-deserved light on not only Iowa farm life and individuals' aspirations for their futures but also the extensive training the military required, the chronology of the war in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war, and the stresses and anxieties of everyone who had a family member overseas at the time. Of Kidney's five relatives who served in that war, three did not return home.

For anyone who knows the details of the war's history and the ships and airplanes involved in it, this book will confirm that knowledge. Kidney especially reveals an amazingly broad knowledge of the numerous aircraft used in both the training of pilots and actual combat operations, from the iconic Stearman biplane trainers to the lesser known Cessna AT-17 Bobcat and the Ryan PT-22 Recruit to the legendary P-38 fighter and B-25 Mitchell bomber. Although I am generally familiar with World War II aircraft, even I found myself googling some of the planes mentioned, and in every instance Kidney was correct in everything she wrote about them.

For any reader who is unfamiliar with the war's history and aircraft, however, he or she will quickly gain an appreciation for Kidney's expertise in those subjects. That familiarity only further cements the credibility of the author.

As I read with riveted interest the letters quoted in this book, I found myself envying the author her storehouse of family history those letters contain. I only wish I had access to a fraction of such letters from my uncle Dillon Summers, who was serving in the same war as Kidney's relatives. Not having such a trove on which to draw makes me appreciate all the more the few letters of his that I do have. They are by no means as thorough a history as Kidney has produced in Leora's Letters, but they are enough to give one a glimpse, fleeting though it may be, of what life was like for the soldier and the loved ones he left behind.

I will be sharing some of my uncle's letters in a future blog post, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, why not check out both of Kidney's books on Amazon. I highly recommend them both. Just a personal opinion, however: consider reading them in chronological order.

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Joy Neal Kidney
Joy Neal Kidney
May 07, 2021

Thank you for this encouragement!

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