My penmanship is not good. Friends laugh. Strangers squint. My family asks, “Is there something wrong with your hand?” I thought of this while reading White Bear Lake resident Carolyn Porter’s careful, descriptive and methodical memoir, “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate.”
Set in the Twin Cities, Texas and Europe, Porter’s book explores the aftermath of a visit to a now closed antique shop in Stillwater in 2011, where she purchased a package of letters written by a Frenchman named Marcel Heuze. Twelve of the letters, written during World War II, appear in the manuscript alongside historic photos.
Porter, a graphic designer, was first attracted by the penmanship — she had been seeking a font to develop for the computer — but she found herself pulled toward Marcel’s dynamic words. She had the letters translated from French and began a self-imposed race to discover whether this big-hearted man, who signed his letters “Your Papa who thinks about you all the time,” had survived the war.
She discovered that he was a Frenchman who had been imprisoned in the German labor camp of Daimler making tanks. Marcel’s pain and optimism thrive in these letters, which were addressed to his wife, Simone, and three daughters, Denise, Suzanne and Lily.
Porter’s research is admirable but not always compelling; she spent countless hours scouring archives and teaming up with a genealogist, determined to discover this man’s fate. Did he survive? She needed to know but also couldn’t bear to know.
The passionate search takes its toll on her life and work: “I was angry at Aaron for not helping with the search; at Marcel’s family for not cherishing his letters; at my clients for consuming time and energy; at every person who had not returned an e-mail or letter,” she writes. “Most of all, I raged at myself for not finding him — and for allowing the search to devour time, money, energy, sleep.”
Porter’s story feels very reconstructed, which it was. She did not write the book as she was developing Marcel’s font, which went on to be honored by the P22 Type Foundry in New York in 2013 and win awards. Her writing often feels distant and meticulously edited, unlike Marcel’s emotional letters.
Yet her play-by-play depiction of how obsession can move unexpectedly into one’s life will hold a reader close. And her journey to embrace her lifelong passion is entirely honest: no green pasture, but an unpolished pile of rocks that need sorting.
It’s a pleasure to read Porter’s romantic dive into the depths of the lost art of letter writing and contained worlds. Porter and Marcel both ask their readers to slow down, look closer and let passion persist, even if one is alone on a soulful search. The soul, Porter seems to say, isn’t seen through the eyes or the hands — no, it’s in the handwriting.
Erin Lewenauer holds degrees from Vassar College and the University of Pittsburgh. She writes for Publisher’s Weekly, Rain Taxi and other publications and lives in Milwaukee.
By: Carolyn Porter.
Publisher: Skyhorse Press, 344 pages, $24.99.
Events: 7 p.m. June 22, Subtext, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul; 6 p.m. June 26, White Bear Lake Public Library; 2 p.m. July 8, Valley Bookseller, Stillwater; 2 p.m. July 9, Barnes & Noble, Roseville; 10 a.m. July 14, Lake Country Bookseller, White Bear Lake.