Book Review: The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor

The sudden cold butt of the gun against her temple surprised her. She didn’t even let out a cry before the man grabbed her arm, and the letters fell from her hands, onto the unblemished snow.

In Austria in 1938 the Nazi party is gaining a foot-hold and Kristoff is forced to witness Jewish families being ripped apart. In Los Angeles in 1989 Katie watches the Berlin Wall crumble- a dividing force torn down piece by piece.  The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor alternates between these two narratives and we discover how love can transcend barriers both tangible and temporal.

Kristoff is an orphan on the brink of adulthood. Fortune placed him in the care of the Faber family where he serves as an apprentice to the famed stamp engraver Frederick Faber. His artistic talent is not easily transferable to the arduous task of stamp engraving, however; metal doesn’t give quite like canvas.  When the war comes to their doorstep his skill is put to the test. Forced by circumstance to take Faber’s place, Kristoff grapples with his love for this family, in particular their daughter Elena, and their Jewish beliefs while working under one German commander to craft stamps for the Reich.

At first, Kristoff didn’t understand the power of the bruin. He didn’t know that the one small simple-looking engraving tool could eventually save them. Or get them killed.

Katie has spent the majority of her recent days caring for her ailing father, Ted. Trapped in the unrelenting grip of Alzheimer’s disease, he struggles to retain recent memories and instead lives his days in the years past. After he is placed in a care facility, Katie begins to sort through his possessions. When she sees his enormous stamp collection she begins to reminisce about their weekends spent sifting through garage sale debris searching for the “gem” as her father deemed the object of their quest. Hoping to surprise him and discover the gem among the masses, she takes the collection to be appraised by a philatelist, Benjamin. What he uncovers serves as a wellspring of devotion and daring connecting history and present day in a beautiful and surprising way.

“There’s a stamp on a letter,” he says. “A World War Two-era Austrian stamp. And I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

The letter is unopened and it displays a stamp which shares many similarities to a well-known stamp engraved by none other than Frederick Faber himself but with two striking additions. The first is an edelweiss flower nestled in the steeple of the featured church, so small it would be easily overlooked by the untrained eye. And the second is the placement.

“This stamp is upside down,” I say. Benjamin nods. “That’s what’s unusual about it?” “No. That’s just a message.” “A message?” “People used to do it all the time. Stamp placement meant something. There was a whole language of stamps.” “A language of stamps?” I had no idea. “Upside down meant I love you,” Benjamin adds.

We soon discover that the love Kristoff has for Elena Faber cannot be stifled by the unyielding presence of Nazi German soldiers in their small town of Grotsburg and the resulting ever-present danger. Elena is a young woman of unmatched courage and she challenges Kristoff in his assistance of the Reich by engraving stamps to please the Führer. Instead she suggest he puts his talent to a better use- to fight for the faith he has grown to love, for the family that protected him, for her.

“You’ll fight them, won’t you, Kristoff?” How could and engraver, an artist, really fight a soldier? Many soldiers? The burin was no match for guns, fire, destruction. But he heard himself agreeing, telling her, of course he would. Of course he would fight.

With the help of Benjamin, Katie travels across the world and back in search of the letters recipient and along the way she learns more about the stamp- its origins and its purpose. She also discovers stories from her past, secrets that illuminate her history. As this mystery unravels we steadily learn how the past and present are so intricately woven together.

The Lost Letter is a captivating story of courage, persistence and unfailing love. Expertly crafted, the alternating narratives steadily build before reaching a harmonious conclusion.

“The edelweiss is an expression of love, you know. Proof of unusual daring, my father used to say. That’s how you proved you loved a girl. You ventured to the most dangerous mountain-tops to find an edelweiss to give her.”

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A review copy of this title was provided by Riverhead Books

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