A Visit to Helene's

Old books in a Charing Cross bookstore
Photo credit: By Elliott Brown from Birmingham, United Kingdom 

Way back in 1971, I wrote to an author in New York whose book I had devoured.  The author, Helene Hanff wrote back, to my surprise, telling me that she had just gotten back from a "dream trip," and would be "writing about it soon."

At the tender age of almost 18, I was thrilled to get a reply from a "real" author.  My dream was to be published someday like Helene. When her second book was published, I bought a first edition copy, not really understanding at the time how special that would be.

As years went by, I carried my two copies and the letter Helene sent with me from home to home. Occasionally, I would re-read the books, laughing and crying just as I had when I was a 17 year old doing summer reading.  When I moved to the Enchanted Cottage, I placed them together on a shelf where I could easily find them...then, as happens...I forgot about them.

Last week, Roger got a documentary on Mel Brooks.  As we sat there watching the story of this amazing and talented man's life, I saw that he had directed the movie, 84 Charing Cross Road.

"Wait, go back," I said. "I know that story...I think I have a book by that name."

Roger backed the DVD up as I went over to the bookshelf to find the book.  Sure enough, there was my copy of Helene's story along with her second book and her note.

Roger surprised me with the movie today.  He found it at our local library.  As we sat watching the brilliant performances of Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, I felt as if I was visiting a very dear and old friend after too many years apart.  The movie was very true to the book, which made me happy. (I don't like when directors change books to the point that they are no longer the same story the author had written.) When the movie ended, I re-read Helene's note to me once more.  

As some may remember, 1971 was a year of upheaval in this country.  Protests were happening everywhere.  As a nation, we had suffered the horrific deaths of President John Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  Vietnam, civil rights and women's liberation were the hot topics of the day.  With so much hate and violence in the media, reading Helene's book of her twenty-year correspondence with Frank Doel, an unassuming bookseller, was like being out in the country on a glorious summer day.  Their story gave me hope...something many young people of that time found in short commodity.

In her letter to me, Helene says that she is filled with hope by young people.  She tells me that she is "grateful for the good letter."  Holding it in my hands, the thought came to me that I had a treasure beyond price.  This note was rare evidence of a time when we, humans on planet Earth, actually communicated with each other using pen and paper.  The communication was, to use a legal term, in our own hand, not type written, not an email that can easily be deleted...but a real handwritten work of art.

A great sadness overcame me when I suddenly realized that technology was eliminating what I feel as I hold and read Helene's letter from September 6, 1971.  This realization has re-fueled my drive to teach writing to people.  Real writing...not technical babble...but words put on lines that bring the reader to a time a place that will resonate with them for years.  

As the summer months slip into reality, let us take the time to pull out a fine piece of stationery, our favorite pen and write a letter to someone we have missed.  Your note will allow them to come visit year after year without ever leaving home.


For more about Helene Hanff go to: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/11/arts/helene-hanff-wry-epistler-of-84-charing-dies-at-80.html

and  http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/58918.Helene_Hanff


Julie Luek said…
I wrote a post on the lost art of letter writing. And I'm afraid I'm guilty as well. There is something so permanent about the hand-written word.

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