Book Review: Book of Letters
Publication Date: Dec 01, 2019
List Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback, 156 pages
Imprint: Sojourner Truth Press
Publisher: Sojourner Truth Press
Parent Company: Sojourner Truth Press
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Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
Mary J. Taylor’s Book Of Letters is just that, a book of letters from the Old School of storytelling. The series of sepia cultural flashbacks moves through a wide range of emotions, historical tidbits, family memories, and societal observations. Every reader of this nonfictional scrapbook will delight in the warmth, empathy, and the lack of pretense of this griot, who wishes to share the experiences and insights from her years with the young.
A native of Hallandale, Florida, Taylor has lived in New York State for more than six decades. She possesses a restless mind and a curiosity about the nuances of life. She earned an Associate of Arts degree from Medgar Evers College and a Master of Science degree from Brooklyn College. She is also the co-editor of The Secrets of Success: The Black Man’s Perspective (1999) and Truth Beyond Illusion: African American Women 1860s-1950s (2010). Not bad for a daughter of the segregated South from humble beginnings.
In her debut collection of letters, Taylor, knows the value of a good story, balancing an entertaining narrative with an informed view of an elder who was one of Black America’s “Greatest Generation,” settling in hostile territory during the Great Migration. The author has seen much and puts the readers into the joys and rigors of segregated rural southern life with every sentence of this book. This is a book of love and racial pride. It is not one of bitterness, anger, or scores to settle.
Early in her life, she realizes that the lessons of the past and the present informs the importance of the future. She didn’t see the type of book she craved, so she created one. Her creative impulse pushed her to start meaningful communication with her 13 siblings in 2007, sending letters reporting on her daily routines in the city. As years went by, she graduated to annual Christmas letters full of wisdom, memory, and insight to family and an increasing circle of friends.
In the foreword by noted writer Elizabeth Nunez, a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, she writes:
“Every New Year starts for me with a letter from Mary Taylor. These are inspirational letters that give me the motivation to be a better person and to live life to the fullest…Her stories give us a window to the many challenges she faced and her fierce spirit and determination to overcome them.”
The letters feature titles which belie their richness of the information, emotion, and history: “The Lesson,” “Departure,” “Greetings,” “Schoolyard,” and “Changing Worlds.” These holiday letters, written on special bond and mailed in long red envelopes, were delightful treats to those whom she loved most. In them, she gives a succinct history lesson to her readers, covering baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, boxing champion Joe Louis, the rigidity of Jim Crow laws, Watergate, the Vietnam War, the need for an unregulated education, the 9-11 World Trade Center tragedy, and the joyous celebration of the presidential election of Barack Obama.
In “Gratitude,” she pens: “Most of all, we cannot forget that once in a while we should do a favor for someone without getting paid. And, what happened to thank you? How many times have we held a door open and a person walked through without saying a word? … I try to keep my mind focused on my blessings and always have gratitude.”
In “Reggie,” her optimism shines through her narrative: “We never know what will happen in life. Do we? Enjoy every minute of every day. Be blessed.”
In “The Mind,” she shows her intellectual curiosity: “Our mind is magnificent, we can use it, not only, to review our history, but to move forward and to create. Our thoughts can change our lives. What we think about we create.”
Taylor’s Book of Letters is one of those rare, emotionally charged books that introduces colorful characters such as Addie Mae, Mrs. Neely, Reggie, Catherine, and the entire Taylor family. We fall in love with them. If the Taylor’s homespun analysis doesn’t get you as a reader, her intelligence, vulnerability, morality will take you by surprise. Taylor’s readable, measured prose is an added treat. She celebrates the emotional landscape of being black and a woman with all its ups and downs. In a sense, this wise book holds no formula or recipe for living and conduct, but first-rate common sense. It will be passed proudly from hand to hand.