Book review: ‘Write, If You Live to Get There’
Ryan Summerlin September 3, 2014
It takes only a moment or two to jot down a simple sentiment. It could be an idea or sweet phrase or just a hearty exclamation of, “I’m still alive!” Over time a collection of these thoughts can unravel the history of an entire era. Mother and daughter Mary K. Sonntag and Mary Jo Sonntag have put together a nostalgic and historical book titled, “Write, If You Live to Get There.” Their sentimental journey and spirited project began with the inheritance of a white wooden chest that contained a wealth of handwritten family letters that spanned a period of 120 years. With loving patience they pieced together a chronological account of the Phillips family as they migrate to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains from the East Coast. Phillips, located near Echo Summit, is now the site of Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. The letters commence in 1842 and, although they reveal the sentiments of one family, capture the pulse of a century. Letters provide a glimpse into the daily deeds of the period’s people, and through empathy and imagination we feel a kinship. “Write, If You Live to Get There” has a connection to all families.
Illness presented great challenges. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever, whooping cough and other physical trials and injuries sadly ended lives prematurely.
“The Grim Reaper has taken our dear little John,” says one letter. “It is with a sad heart that I write to inform you that our Brother Wells is dead…,” says another. But these pioneers had a great deal of faith, strength and most of all, innate courage. In today’s world there’s barely time for pause and reflection, so it’s refreshing to inhale the authentic musings of those who worked in the fields, tended cows and tackled a pen at the end of the day to scratch out words before darkness fell. “Well, Mary I must close it is getting dark to write,” goes one letter.
Words brought delight for the letter reader for the most part. They lived to receive word from their loved ones. But sorrow reared its head all too often. “What is gold worth to a man who has no health to enjoy it?” or “All our best young men are gone. So many have died at the camps,” according to some of the book’s entries.
The letters are preserved in their original form. In many cases the language is primitive, the spelling faulty and properly punctuated sentences are few. But that authenticity is what makes them beautiful. We get caught up in the story of a man whose horse was spooked by a dog, mourn the loss of the mom who became ill with a “lump in her bowel” and celebrate the joys of marriage and childbirth. Receiving correspondence was paramount, a reoccurring expression throughout.
“It is with great pleasure that I seat myself in form to answer your kind and welcome letter that came to hand yesterday which afforded me great pleasure,” according to one letter.
One section is exclusively dedicated to photographs that personalize the letter writers and brings them to life. Copies of a few original letters capture handwriting styles. The book is lengthy at 434 pages and a bit heavy too. Notes and chronological timelines help the reader keep track of who is who, which can be challenging. The Sonntag’s paid due diligence on their organization, which must have been painstaking. ”Write If You Live to Get There” was 15 years in the making. The author expresses proudly that, “It was a labor of love.”
“Write, If You Live to Get There” is available at www.amazon.com.
Gloria Sinibaldi resides part-time in South Lake Tahoe. Her short story, “A Means To Survive,” appears in “Tahoe Blues.” She is a job coach, trainer and author. Contact her at: email@example.com.