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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 24, 2008

One of the first novels ever written in English, in 1740, was a humdinger named "Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded," by a London businessman Samuel Richardson.

Richardson was in the stationery business, selling fancy paper to rich women, who needed to send out thank you notes. Problem was, most women back then didn't know how to write.

So Richardson obliged them by publishing a booklet with sample letters that the fine ladies could copy when they wanted to thank Lady Bullying-Manner for the mah-velous tea she threw last week.

Richardson's success was such that he decided to take his letter writing one step further and tell a continuing story, all in the form of letters from a woman named Pamela to her poor father back home.

Thus was born the epistolary novel, a novel written as correspondence. "Pamela is at times hilarious, as Richardson portrays her writing 20-page letters home while in the employ of one Lord B., a beastly cad who is attacking her in her bed while she's writing. ("Father, he has crawled under the covers and is about to stroke my bosom....")

Since then the epistolary mode has shown up in all manner of fiction, including a novel about education, entitled "Up the Down Staircase," which is written in memo form.

When I was a kid, our family subscribed to Post Magazine, which ran a serial about a salesman for The Earthworm Tractor Corp., who wrote letters back to headquarters about his misadventures in rural America.

I haven't seen an epistolary novel for a long time, until last month I received

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (The Dial Press, $22).

The setting is post World War II England, burdened by gloom and rationing and a war that has left it in ruins. Enter Judith Ashton, a 30-something writer who has made a splash with a series of humorous essays written during the war. She writes her first letter to her publisher, asking how her new book is selling and confessing that she is stuck on her latest project with nothing to write about. The publisher writes back and says something will certainly turn up.

It does in the letter she receives from Dawsey Adams, a farmer who lives on the Isle of Guernsey.

He explains that he belongs to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a bogus book club cooked up when the Germans occupied the little island. He's interested in this writer named Charles Lamb and he wonders if Lamb had written anything except what was in Dawsey's second-hand copy of "Selected Essays."

Our heroine responds with information in another letter and so it goes. The letters are delightful, they're literary, they remind one a good deal of the marvelous novel and movie (starring Ann Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins) "21 Charing Cross Road."

Judith is a real character, always getting herself in trouble with the press (She flings a full teapot at a tabloid reporter when he wonders if she broke up with her dead boyfriend because he was a bit too much like Oscar Wilde) .

There's a good deal of information about the hardships suffered by the Brits during and after the war.

It's a very pleasant romp, with romance mixed in, but no rascal as bad as Samuel Richardson's Lord B.

On the regional front, CarolRhoda, an imprint of Lerner Publishing of Minneapolis, is out with a young adult novel, "Mousetraps" (cloth, $17.95) by Wisconsin author Pat Schmatz. It's all about Maxie, who had a grade school pal, Rick, who disappeared only to show up again at Maxie's high school. He's changed and gets Maxie into trouble. The book addresses timely issues, like school violence, terrorism and mental health. It's illustrated with cartoons by Bill Hauser.

With Minneapolis's bridge collapse last year, what could be more appropriate than a book about Minnesota's bridges? It's here, an elaborate coffee-table book, "Wood+Concrete+Steel: Minnesota's Historic Bridges," by Denis P. Gardner (University of Minnesota Press, $39.95).

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at