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Letters From Skye

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A Novel

Written by Jessica BrockmoleAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jessica Brockmole


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: July 09, 2013
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-345-54261-8
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group

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On Sale: July 09, 2013
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A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.
Sparkling with charm and full of captivating period detail, Letters from Skye is a testament to the power of love to overcome great adversity, and marks Jessica Brockmole as a stunning new literary voice.

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

Praise for Letters from Skye

Letters from Skye is a captivating love story that celebrates the power of hope to triumph over time and circumstance.”—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers

“[A] remarkable story of two women, their loves, their secrets, and two world wars . . . [in which] the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn, leaving just enough blanks to be filled by the reader’s imagination.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Tantalizing . . . sure to please readers who enjoyed other epistolary novels like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.”—Stratford Gazette
“An absorbing and rewarding saga of loss and discovery.”—Kate Alcott, New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker
“A sweeping and sweet (but not saccharine) love story.”USA Today
“[A] dazzling little jewel.”Richmond Times-Dispatch


Chapter One


Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

March 5, 1912

Dear Madam,

I hope you won’t think me forward, but I wanted to write to express my admiration for your book, From an Eagle’s Aerie. I’ll admit, I’m not usually a guy for poetry. More often, I can be found with a dog-eared copy of Huck Finn or something else involving mortal peril and escape. But something in your poems touched me more than anything has in years.

I’ve been in the hospital, and your little book cheered me better than the nurses. Especially the nurse with the mustache like my uncle Phil’s. She’s also touched me more than anything has in years, though in a much less exciting way. Generally I’m pestering the doctors to let me up and about so I can go back to my plotting. Just last week I painted the dean’s horse blue, and I had hoped to bestow the same on his terrier. But with your book in hand, I’m content to stay as long as they keep bringing the orange Jell-O.

Most of your poems are about tramping down life’s fears and climbing that next peak. As you can probably guess, there are few things that shake my nerves (apart from my hirsute nurse and her persistent thermometer). But writing a letter, uninvited, to a published author such as yourself—this feels by far my most daring act.

I am sending this letter to your publisher in London and will cross my fingers that it finds its way to you. And if I can ever repay you for your inspiring poetry—by painting a horse, for example—you only have to say the word.

With much admiration,

David Graham

Isle of Skye

25 March, 1912

Dear Mr. Graham,

You should have seen the stir in our tiny post office, everyone gathered to watch me read my first letter from a “fan,” as you Americans would say. I think the poor souls thought no one outside our island had ever laid eyes on my poetry. I don’t know which was more thrilling to them—that someone had indeed read one of my books or that the someone was an American. You’re all outlaws and cowboys, aren’t you?

I myself admit to some surprise that my humble little works have fled as far as America. From an Eagle’s Aerie is one of my more recent books, and I wouldn’t have thought it had time to wing across the ocean yet. However you’ve acquired it, I’m just glad to know I’m not the only one who’s read the blasted thing.

In gratitude,

Elspeth Dunn

Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

April 10, 1912

Dear Miss Dunn,

I don’t know which made me giddier—to hear that From an Eagle’s Aerie was among your “most recent books” or to get a response at all from such an esteemed poet. Surely you’re too busy counting meter or compiling a list of scintillating synonyms (brilliant, sparkling, dazzling synonyms). Me, I spend my days robbing banks with the James Gang and the other outlaws and cowboys.

I was sent your book by a friend of mine who is up at Oxford. To my shock and dismay, I have not seen your works in print here in the United States. Even a thorough search of my university library turned up nothing. Now that I know you have others lurking on the bookstore shelves, I will have to appeal to my pal to send more.

I was astonished to read that mine was your first “fan” letter. I was sure it would be just one in a stack, which is why I went to such pains to make it fascinating and witty. Perhaps other readers haven’t been as bold (or perhaps as impulsive?) as I.


David Graham

P.S. Wherever is the Isle of Skye?

Isle of Skye

1 May, 1912

Mr. Graham,

You don’t know where my lovely isle is? Ridiculous! That would be like me saying I’ve never heard of Urbana, Illinois.

My isle is off the northwest coast of Scotland. A wild, pagan, green place of such beauty that I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Enclosed is a picture of Peinchorran, where I live, with my cottage nestled between the hills around the loch. I’ll have you know that, in order to draw this for you, I had to hike around the loch, trudge up the sheep path on the opposite hill, and find a patch of grass not covered by heather or sheep excreta. I’ll expect you to do likewise when you send me a picture of Urbana, Illinois.

Do you lecture in Urbana? Study? I’m afraid I don’t know what it is that Americans do at university.

Elspeth Dunn

P.S. By the way, it’s “Mrs. Dunn.”

Urbana, Illinois, U.S.A.

June 17, 1912

Dear Mrs. Dunn (please excuse my presumption!),

You draw as well as write such magnificent poetry? The picture you sent is sublime. Is there nothing you can’t do?

As I can’t draw worth a dime, I’m sending a few picture postcards instead. One is the auditorium at the university; the second is the tower on the library building. Not bad, huh? Illinois is probably as different from the Isle of Skye as a place could be. Not a mountain in sight. Once I leave campus, just corn as far as the eye can see.

I suppose I do what any collegiate American does: study, eat too much pie, torment the dean and his horse. I’m finishing up my studies in natural sciences. My father hopes I’ll enter medical school and join him in his practice one day. I’m not as certain about my future as he seems to be. For now, I’m just trying to make it through my last year of college with my sanity intact!

David Graham

Isle of Skye

11 July, 1912

Mr. Graham,

“Is there nothing you can’t do?” you ask. Well, I can’t dance. Or tan leather. Or make barrels or shoot a harpoon. And I’m not particularly good at cooking. Can you believe I burned soup the other day? But I can sing fairly well, shoot a straight shot from a rifle, play the cornet (can’t we all?), and I’m something of an amateur geologist. And, although I couldn’t cook a decent roast lamb if my life depended on it, I make a marvellous Christmas pudding.

Forgive my frankness, but why devote all of your time (and sanity) towards an area of study that doesn’t grip your very soul? If I had had a chance to go to university, I wouldn’t have spent even a moment on a subject that didn’t interest me.

I should love to think I would’ve spent my university days reading poetry, as there’s no better way to pass the time, but after so many years masquerading as a “real poet,” there likely isn’t much a professor could teach me now.

No, as unladylike as it sounds, I would have studied geology. My older brother Finlay is always out on the water and brings me rocks smooth from the ocean. I can’t help but wonder where they came from and how they washed up on the Western Isles.

There, now you know my secret wishes! I shall have to take your firstborn child in exchange. Or I suppose I could settle for a secret of your own. If you weren’t studying natural science, what would you be studying? What do you wish you could be doing with your life above all?


From the Hardcover edition.
Jessica Brockmole

About Jessica Brockmole

Jessica Brockmole - Letters From Skye
Jessica Brockmole spent several years living in Scotland, where she knew too well the challenges in maintaining relationships from a distance. She plotted her first novel on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh. She now lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.


Letters from Skye is a captivating love story that celebrates the power of hope to triumph over time and circumstance.”—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers

“A remarkable story of two women, their loves, their secrets, and two world wars [in which] the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Tantalizing . . . sure to please readers who enjoyed other epistolary novels like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.”—Stratford Gazette
“A poignant tale of a stubborn love that bridges the lives and wars of two generations, Letters From Skye gives the reader a story to inhale as well as read, unfolding amid the gripping panorama of a changing world—an absorbing and rewarding saga of loss and discovery.”—Kate Alcott, New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker
“A sweeping and sweet (but not saccharine) love story.”USA Today
“[A] dazzling little jewel.”Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is a fascinating, lyrical tale of love and loss. Gracefully weaving the tales of lovers and brothers and sisters spanning two wars, Brockmole expertly explores the toll of both honesty and deception upon hearts battered by war and society’s expectations.”—Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife
“Jessica Brockmole is a gifted storyteller who weaves beauty and emotion into her pages. Letters from Skye will tug at your heart and make you long for the salty air of the Isle of Skye.”—Sarah Jio, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Camellia

From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide

About the Book

A Conversation with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

Kate Alcott was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live. She is the author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell.

Kate Alcott: Your story maps the lives of two solitary souls who open up to each other in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without letters. How do you think the story of Elspeth and Davey would have played out in our Internet world?

Jessica Brockmole: There are some aspects of the story that I think could only work with letters, and with the specific era in which the letters were written: the social restrictions on a man writing to a woman, and the woman responding, the unhurried pace in which Elspeth and David’s relationship unfolds, the interruption of the war, the almost painful anticipation of waiting for letters sent in wartime, the desperate reliance on ephemeral pieces of paper to hold together a relationship.

Yet, in many ways their story is still relevant today. People fall in love online—­whether through emails, instant messages, interactions on forums, or social media sites. They go through the early stages of a relationship, sometimes without a picture exchanged, relying solely on the written word and the shared passions lying between the lines. Though they don’t often have to wait so long for responses, the anticipation is still there, as is the anxiety about building something through nothing more solid than sentences.

If Elspeth and Davey were telling their story now, via email, the lags might not be there. They wouldn’t have to worry so much about messages waylaid or messages lost (though, as we all know, emails occasionally do disappear into the ether). Yet there would still be counted moments between replies, joy when the replies finally came, anxiety about that first meeting, about hearing words spoken rather than seeing them written. The power of the written word exists no matter what the medium.

KA: What gave you the idea to tell your story solely through ­letters? Could you tell us more about the benefits and pitfalls of that structure?

JB: One reason that I decided to tell Elspeth and Davey’s story solely through letters is that I really enjoy reading real collections of historical letters. I’m fascinated by what’s said and what’s left unsaid, by the story told between the lines. I thought this would be an intriguing way to write a novel, limiting myself in format, yet allowing the story to unfold in a very organic manner.

Another big reason was that I had just moved to Scotland, an ocean away from friends and family. We had to, out of necessity, shift our communication to the epistolary. We had to trust in our words. I found it intriguing how relationships could be held together with nothing but words and sentences (even though those words are mostly emailed these days), without touch and sound. I wanted to explore that in a book.

There were certainly difficulties in limiting myself to this structure. Description of setting and of character had to be approached carefully, so as to sound natural in a letter. Recounting events that involved both the sender and the recipient, such as the three times Elspeth and Davey meet, were tricky. The reader needed to experience those meetings, but both characters already had and didn’t need to recall every detail. I had to strike a balance between story and structure, between giving the reader the necessary information without sacrificing the authenticity of the ­letters.

KA: Were Elspeth and Davey based on real people?

JB: They weren’t based on real people, but I’m sure that both hold characteristics of myself. Like Elspeth, I’m hesitant to venture far from home. I’m sometimes turned so inward that I can lose hours to poetry. Like Davey, I use books as security in a turbulent world, as lucky charms to hold tight to when life seems uncertain. Like Margaret, I’m fascinated by family history. Like Finlay, I sometimes find it hard to apologize. I think it’s unavoidable when writing to prevent little pieces of yourself from sneaking into the story and the characters.

KA: What kind of research did you do?

JB: Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of letters and postcards written during the time, both from published works, from digital archives, and from my own personal collection. I did read many between sweethearts—­from soldiers on the field of battle and the loved ones waiting at home—­but I discovered that those weren’t always the best representatives of epistolary voice from the era. Soldiers’ letters came with a filter. They were always subject to the censor and were often meant to be shared among friends and family at home. It wasn’t uncommon to read aloud a new letter to the larger family group. Many of these letters were polite and formal and careful, even to wives or sweethearts.

To really get a more representative feel for the epistolary language of the time, especially between correspondents who wrote for nobody but each other, I had to look at other exchanges. I read letters between siblings, between best friends, between young couples writing in secret. I read letters written outside of wartime, in the relative freedom of peace. I read letters from men and women, from those young, old, and in-­between. The voices in these letters often felt more relaxed, somehow more true. They chatted casually and unguardedly. So, while the letters from the front gave me specifics about life in a warzone and the emotions carried through battle, all of the details needed for my story, many of the other letters gave me the language that I needed to tell it.

KA: You create a deep sense of place in your novel. What is it about Skye that drew you to that setting?

JB: When I visited Skye years ago, I was struck by the starkness of the landscape, but also by the rich beauty. The rain, the sea, the impossible green of the hills, centuries of myth tucked along the coast. Though I hadn’t written poetry for years, I wanted to then, as I felt ordinary prose couldn’t do the place justice. I began researching the island during the world wars and found more reason to set a novel there. There was such a strong sense of isolation, especially during the First World War, a feeling (at least among some) that the conflict was distant enough to not affect them. I thought this would be intriguing to explore, through a character connected to the war, but not initially expecting to be impacted by it.

KA: You’ve also framed your story between the universal truths and tragedies of two world wars. What do you hope your readers will take away from this novel?

JB: I’d like readers to think about the sense that history can and does repeat itself. Love happens, in and out of wartime. Family secrets and family quarrels happen, regardless of where in the world you are. A generation and a war apart, the same struggles exist. Reading through wartime letters, I see this over and over, the same sorts of heartbreak and worry and joy that people face today.

KA: What are some of your favorite novels—­and why?

JB: Like Davey, my favorite book is very much a security blanket. It’s the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I love as much for its history and for its complex, real characters as for the role it plays in my life. It’s the last thing I pack in moments of upheaval—­college, moves, hospital stays—­and the first thing I unpack.

Apart from that steady favorite, my list changes often, every time I read something new that I can’t stop talking about. I read and enjoy a lot of novels contemporary to the eras I write, like All Quiet on the Western Front or Humphrey Cobb’s wrenching Paths of Glory. Though not contemporary to that era, I was blown away by Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, which brought me to laughter and to tears. I strive to write like that.

Other favorites from recent years include the often-­reread Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk, and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. I love books with strong characters, with enduring love, with difficult decisions. And, of course, history.

KA: What are your writing habits?

JB: Though I do write every day, I don’t have a set routine. In fact, I intentionally mix things up to keep from growing complacent. I am constantly changing location, to various spots both in and out of the house. The few constants, though, are my music, which is always going in the background, and a cup of tea. Something about curling my hands around a steaming cup of tea really helps me to focus.

KA: How long did it take you to write Letters from Skye?

JB: I wrote the first draft of Letters from Skye in ten months of steady writing, and then gradually revised over the following several years. It was the first novel I completed and, as I wrote others and learned more about my process, I was able to apply that knowledge to Skye.

KA: Are you working on a new book? Can you share anything with us about your next project?

JB: I am! My next book is also set during the Great War and centers around a pair of artists—­one Scottish, one French—­trying
to recapture a lost summer of innocence in the midst of war.

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