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DEAR PAPA by Anne Ylvisaker


by Anne Ylvisaker

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-7636-1618-4
Publisher: Candlewick

Nine-year-old Isabelle’s first letter to her Papa in September 1943, a year after his death from an allergic reaction (the war-time setting is largely background), is the beginning of an epistolary journal that spans the rest of her Minnesota childhood. Her letters to Papa, unread by anyone else (except for the first, which Isabelle mails to her namesake aunt), are interspersed with her letters to other, living, characters: Aunt Izzy, Mama, and Isabelle’s siblings and friends. Isabelle, the middle child of five, is determined, practical, and lonely amid the changes her father’s death has wrought. She schemes to reunite her family when she and her older sisters are sent to live with relatives. She is outraged when her mother becomes a live-in housekeeper to, and then marries, a Catholic. But she gradually warms to her stepfather and to her new life. As that takes on stability and happiness, her letters to her Papa taper off and a final letter from Isabelle as a young woman, now earning a living as a writer, closes the story. Ylvisaker’s narrative voice falters a few times in her debut with the challenge of sustaining a truly childlike style for the second-person address. On December 7, observing the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Isabelle reminds Papa of his “prayers” upon hearing the news in 1941, and tells him, “I will pray just like you did: Christ Almighty! God, damn them all to hell. Holy Jesus, preserve us.” A nudge and a wink to adult readers steal in along with the earnest assertion. Yet Isabelle’s resolute nature does produce a few flashes of warmth and gentle humor. Ylvisaker gives us a look at life at home during the war years, sketching in the big events, letting Isabelle’s details of daily life show just enough of wartime economies and worries. Uneven, but overall refreshingly free of bathos. (Fiction. 8-11)