Letter Days by
Sarah Jane Stratford blends romance, politics, and history.
This story is very relevant today with unproven accusations,
a Red Scare, and no due process. Yet, this book is not about
the current political situation in America today, but about
the dark era in the 1950s called McCarthyism, where writers,
actors, producers, and directors were accused of being Communists.
“I wanted to show how women were involved with and affected
by McCarthyism, after reading about the Red Scare. My main
character, Phoebe, like so many others, did not know how she
was named as a Communist. Many did not know who named them
whether activists, union leaders, teachers, or members of
the NAACP. All got accused and hurt. I also wanted to explore
the relationship between two women and how they could survive
and thrive under adverse circumstances.”
The story begins with the main character Phoebe Adler striving
to make it as a screenwriter. Unfortunately, it turns into
a living nightmare after someone accuses her of being a Communist.
After finding herself being blacklisted, she decides to ignore
the subpoena of the Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC,
and run away to England. This is partly influenced by her
desire not to name names and the need to continue to have
a paycheck to support her ill sister, Mona. In England, she
meets Hannah Wolfson, who is a successful TV producer that
hires blacklisted writers. The main focus is the production
of the TV series “Robin Hood,” an adventure story
for children, but with symbolic plotlines.
“The real Hannah saw it as very symbolic. “Robin
Hood” steals from the rich to give to the poor. The
shows explored ideas of how to treat others, and to support
one another. Blacklistees saw “Robin Hood” as
an outlaw in his own country. It was very much what happened
to the Jews in Germany. One day they were living their normal
life, and the next day, boom, they were not citizens but subjects
with no rights. There was the attitude: ‘You are Other.
You are different. You are evil.’ I found the TV shows
very entertaining and great adventure stories. The stories
were very sophisticated with a high-class production. There
was an underlying non-political message they wanted to get
across to children that included to be open-minded, be a person
who helps others and push back against bullies.”
Interestingly, there is a sub-plot that involves a mystery.
Phoebe is not safe since she is hounded and harassed by FBI
Agent Glynn. He wants to arrest her and bring her back to
America to appear before HUAC, and will do this by any means
possible, legal and illegal. For both Phoebe and the reader,
these scenes create anxious moments as danger lurks in every
corner. Those in the FBI have their own agenda and will do
almost anything to promote it, showing that the FBI should
stand for Fear, Beware, and Intimidate.
The author explained, “Everyone must decide who is trustworthy
and who is not. This drove people apart and ruined friendships,
even marriages. The level of paranoia became so high because
people were targeted and followed. People even had to watch
their words. This is why I put in the book, ‘They can
blacklist someone because someone else points a finger, but
they can’t shut down a show without proof of what they’d
call a crime. The phone tapping and harassment were based
on real events. In fact, phone tapping was rampant. Agents
could enter people’s houses and search for anything
incriminating. People were actually followed. Of course, I
exaggerated with Phoebe for the point of the story. I do think
the higher echelon of the FBI had an attitude, ‘by any
means necessary,’ using the excuse that they were protecting
There is also a peripheral story of how women must face barriers
to work outside the home. In London, just like America, working
women are looked down upon, expected to marry, have children,
and not take jobs away from men. Through Hannah’s eyes,
readers can see the struggle and guilt working mothers had
to face within the family as well as society. Phoebe, on the
other hand, has a relationship with someone who seems very
willing to accept that she can work and find the time to be
involved with a man.
Although politics is a backdrop, the story is very character-oriented.
It shows how the riveting characters connect and disconnect
with one another as readers decide who is trustworthy and
who is not.