by Ann Fletcher
As handwritten letters are replaced by e-mails and texts, Denver author Cindy Ely captured a slice of 1940s history in a novel based on hundreds of letters exchanged between her great aunt and great uncle, Violet and Warren Gray, during World War II.
Called “Dear Mrs. Gray,” the book chronicles the daily life and challenges of a World War II-era couple from 1942 to1945, the years Warren Gray served in the U.S. Army as a baker at Camp Wolters, Texas.
The couple is deceased, and Ely discovered their letters posthumously. Warren died in 1994 at age 94 and Violet died four years later. But their conversations continued through the collection of correspondences.
“I’d gone to visit Violet to say my final goodbye,” said Ely, who reminisced with her great aunt about the summers she spent at Warren and Violet’s lake home. Near the end of their visit, Violet, who had no children of her own, asked Ely if she wanted any of Violet’s belongings as keepsakes after she died.
Ely saw a large American flag draped over a nearby chair. It was the flag draped across Warren’s coffin that acknowledged his service.
“I told her I’d love to have Uncle Warren’s burial flag and promised to proudly display it,” she said.
It wasn’t an unusual request coming from Ely, who grew up in a military family whose has racked up more than 134 combined years of service since World War II and stretches across nearly every American war since.
Ely’s father, Elmer Smith, was a U.S. Marine who survived the battle at Chosin Reservoir, a turning point in the Korean War during which Marines and United Nations forces — despite being surrounded by 60,000 Chinese troops — were able to break through and inflict crippling losses on the Chinese. Few Marines made it out alive. Those who did are honored and remembered as “The Chosin Few.”
Ely longed to know more about her father’s experiences, and on several occasions asked him to write or talk about what remembered, but he never would. His stories were largely untold when he died of lung cancer at age 67.
“He was the bravest man I ever knew,” said Ely.
Spurred by her interest in history and her family’s role in it, Ely asked her great aunt Violet during their final visit, “Did you and Uncle Warren write letters during World War II?”
“I’ve got a bag full of them,” said Violet. “I’ll send them.”
After her death, a box arrived at Ely’s Birkdale home, but it would be nine years before she would open the musty World War II duffle bag stuffed with hundreds of letters.
They moved her. She found herself crying as she poured over them.
“I never realized they were so in love,” said Ely.
Warren operated a successful bakery until an Army draft notice arrived the spring of 1942. He was 42 years old. His culinary skills were discovered during basic training and put to use as a baker.
Ely decided to self-publish the book to pay tribute to the men and women who support U.S. war efforts on the battlefield and home front. But she was also motivated to preserve the letters’ content, specifically the love between Warren and Violet.
“I almost didn’t want to share them with the rest of the world, but in another respect, how could I not?” Ely said.
She hopes the novel will help readers of all ages gain insights into how previous generations handled everyday life amid war and financial difficulties.
Her novel is a fictionalized version of a true story told through 307 pages of letters. Ely added details about actual wartime events as plot devices and included a prologue and epilogue to set the stage for the action.
Copies are available at Amazon.com, retail bookstores, and in ebook format at Smashwords.com.