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Book Review

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

This story is told through a series of letters written by a freshman named Laurel. The letters are written to Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart and others. Her letter writing begins as an assignment in her English class, but Laurel never turns in her letter to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, who committed suicide. Instead, she continues to write to different dead people she admires.

Laurel’s sister, May, died the previous spring. Her parents are divorced, and her mother left for California after May’s death. Laurel lives two weeks of the month with her father and two weeks with her Aunt Amy. This allows her to switch districts and start her freshman year at a school where no one knows anything about her sister.

Laurel admits to Cobain that she does not know who she is. She hides in the bathroom to eat her lunch and then sits outside along the fence. It is there she first sees Sky, an attractive and mysterious boy who always wears a leather jacket, even in the summer.

Laurel continues to write to Cobain because it makes her feel closer to May, who introduced her to his music. Laurel describes the grief her family experienced after May’s death and her frustration at not being able to find a place to fit in. Laurel writes to Earhart in her third week at school, telling how she admired Earhart’s courage. She tells how that day she wore one of May’s outfits to school, faced her fear, and at lunch, walked up to Natalie, a girl from her English class.

Natalie introduces her to Hannah, and soon the three girls are sitting at the table and talking like they have been friends forever. They ask her to go to the state fair with them after school, and Laurel has a wonderful time. In a letter the following week, she tells Cobain that she shared her crush on Sky with her new friends. She finally feels like she fits in.

In her letters, Laurel describes her growing friendship with Hannah and Natalie. Hannah dates older boys, one of them is in college. This makes Laurel nervous. May dated a man named Paul, but she's not sure how they connect. Laurel gets drunk for the first time at a sleepover at Natalie’s house. She walks off, remembering how her sister would come home drunk from parties and wake her up to tell about her night. When Laurel returns to Natalie’s house, she sees her friends kissing. She promises not to tell anyone about it.

Laurel’s letters to Garland express her longing for her once happy family, just as Garland seemed to be searching for the innocence of her childhood. After May’s death, Laurel’s mother moved to a ranch in California. Now, Laurel feels abandoned and does not know what to say to her mother when she calls on the phone. Laurel writes to Allan Lane, one of her Aunt Amy’s favorite actors, about her life in her aunt’s house. Amy is forty 40, a spinster and a devout Christian.

In a letter to Amy Winehouse, Laurel tells how Hannah introduced her to two seniors, Tristan and Kristen. They are an artsy couple who take Laurel and her friends under their wings. They hang out in the alley of the school, smoke clove cigarettes and teach the girls about cool music, such as Janis Joplin and Guns N’ Roses.

Kristen tells Laurel a rumor that Sky got kicked out of his old school but no one knows why. A few days later, in a letter to Jim Morrison, Laurel writes how Sky met her in the hall at school and asked if she wanted to go for a ride. At first, she enjoys herself, but when Sky begins to touch her thigh, Laurel retreats to a memory with May. She does not explain what happened, only that she is scared. Sky senses her fear and holds her hand instead.

Their relationship begins to grow. As they become more physical, Laurel hints again at something having happened when she was with May, but she pushes the memory away and continues to make out with Sky. The flashbacks take a toll however, when she refuses to tell Sky what is wrong, even though he can sense she is keeping something from him.

Things come to a head on New Year’s Eve, after Laurel has had several alcoholic drinks. She longs to tell Sky the truth about what happened to her, but she is afraid. Instead, she tells him she is a fairy and tries to jump from a balcony. Sky stops her, but then leaves her with their friends. He does not return her calls over the winter break and officially breaks up with her when they return to class. He says that she has something broken inside of her, and he is powerless to help her.

Laurel writes about the relationship between Hannah and Natalie. Natalie admits she is in love with Hannah, and it is obvious Hannah loves her, but she is not ready to admit she is a lesbian. Instead, she gets into physical relationships with college-aged men.

One night, several months after Laurel’s breakup with Sky, the three friends attend a college party with Hannah’s boyfriend. Hannah’s older brother, Jason, is there and starts to cause a scene. He is angry that Hannah kept her boyfriend a secret from him.

A fight is avoided, but Laurel can sense the tension between Hannah, her boyfriend and Natalie. Laurel finds a corner by herself, but then joins several boys outside, one of whom, Evan, she knows from school. He offers her a beer and a “caffeine” pill. At first she refuses, but when she overhears one of the boys compare her to May, she takes it. Immediately, she begins to feel nauseated and dizzy.

Evan leads her back into the house. Thinking she is going to be sick, Laurel opens the bathroom door, only to find Natalie and Hannah passionately kissing. She closes the door, but not before others at the party have seen them together. Evan leads her to a bedroom. Although she asks him to stop, he proceeds to molest her. Laurel manages to stop him before he rapes her.

Sky comes into the room to make out with his new girlfriend, but then sees what is happening and threatens Evan. He takes Laurel home. On the way, he admits he knew May well and once had a crush on her. Laurel is devastated, even though he insists he only ever loved her. The next day, Laurel goes to Hannah’s house. Both she and Natalie are furious with Laurel. Laurel does not tell them how Evan tried to rape her so Natalie believes Laurel ditched them for Sky.

Laurel’s memories come hard and fast, and she writes about how, when May was 16, she asked permission to take Laurel to the movies with her to see Aladdin. At the theater, May leaves with her boyfriend, Paul. Thirteen-year-old Laurel is left behind with Paul's friend Billy. Instead of taking her inside to the theater, Billy takes her for a ride in his car and fondles her.

Laurel did not tell May what happened. May continues to use Laurel to hide her relationship with Paul. Once a week, for several months, May leaves Laurel at the theater with Billy while she parties with Paul. Billy continues to touch Laurel, and it is intimated that he forces her to watch him masturbate.

Laurel tells May what is happening the night Billy forces her to touch him. May, distraught, walks along the edge of a bridge, pretending to be a fairy, like she had when they were younger. Laurel does not believe her sister jumped, but fell, into the river. Laurel feels responsible for her sister’s death. She calls Sky and has him take her to the bridge. She tells him everything that has happened, thinking that he will no longer like her. Instead, he comforts and supports her.

Laurel now feels strong enough to approach Hannah before school. The two ditch class, and Laurel tells her everything that happened at the party and with May. Hannah shows her the bruises Jason gave her after the party. His anger is explosive, and he has hit her before.

Hannah and Jason live with their elderly grandparents, who do not see what is going on between the siblings. Hannah ends up moving in with Natalie and her mother, until Jason leaves for the Marines. Over the coming weeks, Hannah allows Natalie to kiss her at school.

As the school year ends, Laurel’s mother returns from California for a visit. Laurel finally opens up about Billy’s molestation and the night May died. In an epilogue, Laurel writes a letter to May and tells her that she and Sky are back together. She is seeing a therapist to help her work through all that has happened to her, and at the end of the school year, she gives her English teacher all the letters to the dead that she has written, except the one to May.

Laurel and her parents take May’s ashes to the bridge and empty them into the river. Laurel hopes her sister will get to see the ocean, as they had always dreamed. She knows, when she finally goes to the ocean herself, she will sense May’s presence in the waves.

Christian Beliefs

Laurel’s Aunt Amy is a devout Christian. Laurel says Amy found God after her father died. Laurel seems indifferent, even irreverent at first, about her aunt’s faith. Because Amy will make Christmas all about Jesus’s birth and salvation, Laurel asks to spend the vacation with her father.

Laurel buys her aunt an Advent calendar that she can reuse every year. Amy says grace before every meal and asks that Laurel do so, too. It is obvious that even if Laurel does not understand her faith, Amy is committed to Christ and His will for her life. She talks about God to Laurel, but does not force her beliefs on her.

Amy had a short relationship with a man who walked across America for Jesus. Amy sent him care packages for his journey and walked the last 100 miles with him. The two talked on the phone and exchanged letters for a short time, but then the Jesus Man, as Laurel refers to him, stopped returning Amy’s calls. He visits at the end of the book, but it is apparent he is only renewing the relationship to get money for another proselytizing trip. Amy acknowledges this and does not help him.

Other Belief Systems

Laurel says May’s room feels full of ghosts. Laurel wishes Garland could tell her where she is now. She believes there is something in human beings that does not disappear when they die, but she does not know where they go. She wishes Garland is not outside in the dark.

May used to tell Laurel that they had magical powers because they were fairies. Only May had wings and the ability to fly, however, because she was the oldest. When Laurel was scared, May would have her gather up items from nature, such as snail shells and bark, and she would pretend to cast a spell to protect Laurel from whatever made her afraid. May convinced Laurel that she had wings and could fly, but could only do so if no one saw her.

Laurel writes to River Phoenix and wonders if he is in the sky with the stars. She tells Phoenix about how, when he was young, his family belonged to a cult called The Children of God. He and his sister would sing in the streets to get money for their family. His family quit the cult after his parents learned that the leader was asking women to have sex with men to recruit them into the cult.

On New Year’s Eve, Kristen wants everyone to write out an intention, because in Eastern philosophy, if you set an intention you can make a transformation. She has everyone write out their intentions. They throw the papers into a bonfire to send them into the universe.

Authority Roles

Laurel’s parents often tell the girls how they met and fell in love. When they discovered they were pregnant, they decided to get married. Their family had been a happy one until the girls grew older and their mother grew restless, not understanding her role in the family now that she felt they did not need her as much. Their parents divorced a few years before May’s death. Neither her mother nor father know how to deal with May’s death. Her mother flees to a ranch in California to grieve. Her father tries to parent but basically sits and watches television until Laurel finally begins to heal herself and bring her new friends over.

Profanity/Violence

God’s name is used with the word, thank. The f-word is used in several different tenses, alone and with the words you and bum. H---, s--- and a--hole are used, along with other objectionable words, such as douche bag, suck, p---ed and dyke.

Hannah’s brother, Jason, is an angry young man. He is verbally abusive to Hannah when she and her friends accidently get his car stuck in the mud. Hannah has bruises from where he hit her after he caught her kissing Natalie at the party.

After May’s death, Sky saw Paul in the parking lot of their school. Sky beat him up because of what he was saying about her.

Laurel, May and two neighbor boys used to play something called the dead game. A player would be blindfolded and then have to lie down in the middle of the road. They would lie there until they heard a car coming. Whoever could stay on the ground the longest before rolling out of the way of the car would win. Laurel usually lost the game because she would move as soon as she heard a car turn down the road.

After the first abuse by Billy, she nearly died because she waited so long to move. After her breakup with Sky, she plays the game in the school parking lot, and again, she is almost run over. Sky is a witness to it, and his call for her to get out of the way probably saves her life.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

A boy in Laurel’s English class doodles pictures of naked boobs on his poetry handout. Laurel catches Evan with his hand in his pants several times during algebra.

Laurel writes in a letter to Phoenix that she read he claimed to have lost his virginity when he was 4. He later denied it, but Laurel wonders if he needed someone to protect him when he was younger.

Laurel and her friends flash people on the walk home from getting ice cream. Hannah often talks about the different boys with whom she messes around. Laurel and Natalie sometimes go with Hannah when she goes to meet her dates. They are often left outside a house or room while Hannah is inside. She often comes out later with her top off or her hair askew.

Laurel and Sky share several passionate kisses. Their kissing soon turns to making out, but nothing is described in detail other than how his fingers feel on her skin. She feels clean with him. Sometimes Laurel spaces out while Sky is touching her, vaguely recalling Billy’s abuse.

Evan drugs Laurel at a party and then takes her into a bedroom. Laurel tells him to stop, but Evan pulls up her skirt and touches her body. At some point before intercourse, Laurel is able to push him off of her. Sky enters at that point and tells Evan to leave her alone.

Laurel slowly admits the sexual abuse she experienced with Billy. Nothing is graphically described, but Laurel tells how his hands went under her shirt and down her pants and that he made her watch while he finished. She finally admitted the abuse to May after Billy told Laurel she was a big girl now and she had to do what big girls did. It is intimated he made her touch his penis until he ejaculated.

Much of the book deals with the homosexual relationship between Natalie and Hannah. They are in love with each other, often kissing and touching each other while in private, but Hannah is not ready to “come out.” Their love is seen as a pure thing, beautiful in nature. After the party where they are discovered kissing in the bathroom, Hannah admits the truth and publically displays her love for Natalie.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: Laurel lies to her English teacher about the letter writing assignment, finally admitting the truth at the end of the school year. May lies to their parents about where she is going, often sneaking out of the house after their father went to sleep. Laurel copies her behavior. Hannah lies to the school office about the bouquets of tulips her boyfriend keeps sending to the school.

Alcohol: Hannah and Natalie introduce Laurel to alcohol. The three get drunk several times on different liquor. They attend parties where beer is served. Laurel recalls nights when May would come home from a party, obviously having been drinking, and tell Laurel about her night.

Tobacco: May often smoked cigarettes. Natalie and Hannah smoke cigarettes. Laurel tries to smoke, but does not like smoking. Kristen and Tristen smoke clove cigarettes.

Illegal drugs: Tristen sometimes smokes marijuana. He is surprised one afternoon when Hannah wants to smoke with him, but he stops her from using his pipe. Laurel takes what she thinks is a caffeine pill only to discover it is a date rape drug.

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

12 to 18

Author

Ava Dellaira

Cast

Director

Distributor

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan Publishers

Released

On Video

Year Published

2014

Awards

YALSA Teen’s Top Ten nominee, 2015; CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, University of Wisconsin) 2015

Reviewer

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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