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May 3, 2018

At This Juncture: A Book of Letters, by Rona Altrows

“Dear Joan [of Arc],

It is impossible to know if this letter will get to you. Personally I am agnostic and have no idea whether there is any substance to the Christian praise of life after death for the deserving. Moreover, if there is a heaven, can it be reached by Canada Post? Another unknowable…” 

The premise is this: Ariadne Jensen, a Canadian woman in her fifties, writes to the CEO of Canada Post with a modest proposal to inspire Canadians to start sending letters again (thereby increasing Canada Post’s profits). Letter-writing, for Jensen, has been a lifelong pursuit (she wrote letters to her Aunt Bella in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, from the age of six, and “[t]herefore, in the course of the years we were in postal contact, we purchased, by my calculation, at least 2,392 Canadian stamps”). Unfortunately, it would be difficult for even the most prolific letter-writer to save Canada Post single-handedly, and so she wonders instead if they could come up with a scheme whereby anyone who buys a pack of stamps also receives one of Jensen’s letters, one of her actual letters, or a letter she’s written to a historical figure (see Joan of Arc, above, or another to Lady Gaga) or even fictional letters she’s created between historical figures—from General James Wolfe to his mother, from Helen Keller to her lover, etc. etc. And in reading these letters, Canadians would be inspired to go out and write more letters of their own, buy more stamps, and so it goes. And Canada Post continues on into the future, a venerable institution.

There is no response from the Canada Post, and so Jensen rescinds her offer to write demographically targeted letters in exchange for a small office space, but her project continues and takes the form of Rona Altrows’ new book, At This Juncture: A Book of Letters. Comprising all the different kinds of letters outlined above, which means this book is basically a collection of stories, some of which are linked, and as the book progresses the reader gets a stronger sense of who Ariadne Jensen is and also of the characters who populate her world.

I do have a vague suspicion: I have a suspicion that Rona Altrows herself (an award-winning writer who has published two previous books of short fiction) has a hobby similar to that of Ariadne Jensen, writing gorgeous letters between fictional figures and then she amassed a nice pile of them and then faced the challenge of turning them into a book; i.e. the conceit of Jensen and the effort to save Canada Post was secondary to the book’s actual content, and it’s true while the former is charming, the latter is richer. It’s true too that this is a book that’s targeted toward a very specific audience, but I am that audience and I loved this book.

I love letters. I still don’t write as many as I should, but I try to make up for it with thank-you notes and Christmas cards. I love reading collections of letters (Blanche Howard’s and Carol Shields’ is my favourite), and also epistolary novels, I love writing about things that arrive in the post, and like Ariadne Jensen, I too have lamented the postal system’s decline. And so At This Juncture was right up my street. The prose is beautiful, each letter compelling, and I was curious about the organization of the book, its structure, the poetic fragments that introduced each section. I loved pondering the connections between the letters, wondering what each one’s point of origin might have been, and also enjoyed the glimpses into so many different worlds, different lives. Ariadne Jensen is a memorable character—she reminded me of Lillian Boxfish. And she has partially succeeded in her endeavour, it seems, because upon finishing At This Juncture, what else could I do but go buy a pack of stamps? (With bees!)

One thought on “At This Juncture: A Book of Letters, by Rona Altrows”

  1. I smiled reading that the letters between my Mom (Blanche Howard) and Carol Shields are among your favourites – me too!

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