Decades after her father’s plane goes down in the Atlantic, Emma Sweeney “meets” the pilot father she never knew through letters saved by her mother from the early days of their courtship. After her mother’s death, these letters — hidden since Emma’s childhood — give her a glimpse at the funny, charismatic and devoted man with whom Beebe had her sons and daughter: Emma herself, born after Jack’s death during the Cold War.
Jack met Beebe Mathewson in Coronado, Calif., just weeks before he was sent overseas with the Navy. Stationed in Hawaii and Tsingtao, China, Jack and Beebe’s nascent relationship begins with his acknowledgment that he’s utterly smitten with her — and their love only strengthens in the following months apart. In Emma Sweeney’s As Always, Jack, a collection of her father’s letters from 1946, we read only his missives to the beauty he left in California — but the affection between them is clear. It would have been wonderful to read Beebe’s letters, too, but they’re nowhere to be found; Emma notes that her heartbroken mother likely destroyed them after her husband’s death.
For me, the highlight of this short-but-sweet collection — published with a prologue and epilogue explaining family history and the letters’ significance — was learning how Emma felt about the father she never knew. Growing up, Emma’s questions about her family’s origins went unanswered. After her mom remarried when Emma was small, she was told to refer to her stepfather as “Dad” and her biological father as “Jack.” It made sense, I guess . . . considering her dad was gone. But it left Emma with a hole in her heart.
It’s hard to imagine Beebe’s heartache at having lost the love of her life — especially when no one could explain what became of him. Originally written off as “lost in the Bermuda Triangle,” the case was considered closed after the ’50s plane crash. It’s only in adulthood that Emma discovers what really became of Jack. When she finds her father’s letters, tucked away in a drawer, she knows intuitively that her mother left them for her alone to discover. It’s not hard to imagine they’d been hidden away for quite some time — a relic from a simpler time in Beebe’s life, before everything in her world went dark.
Though Jack’s letters to Beebe make up most of the book (and I enjoyed them), I found myself more interested in Emma’s childhood and the mystery of Jack’s plane crash. Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure most of us have a stack of letters just like Jack’s somewhere in a family attic. I grew up hearing stories of my great grandfather, a World War II veteran, and all the letters he wrote from China when my grandmother was young. I’ve held quite a few in my hands, actually, and talked about my great grandfather’s adventures abroad. Those letters? They’re treasures. My great grandfather’s descriptions of life in the service, the Kodak camera he purchased on the black market in China, the obvious love and devotion he had for his wife and daughter at home . . . they bring tears to my eyes. And Jack’s seem much the same.
Though the missives are likely reminiscent of many written in the 1940s, maybe that doesn’t matter. As Always, Jack is a pleasant read, one I devoured quickly; I chuckled a few times, shed a tear once or twice. I can’t imagine being Emma in that time following her mother’s passing, saying goodbye to one parent while just “meeting” another for the first time. Jack’s letters are a treasure for the Sweeney family — absolutely — and if you’re a World War II buff (though these were technically written after the war) who enjoys epistolary love stories, Sweeney’s collection is a heartwarming way to spend an afternoon.
3 out of 5!
GIVEAWAY update on 7/12: Congrats to Erin, lucky No. 5 in my entrants list. I’ve emailed you!