Book Review: Leora’s Letters OR How I Learned Empathy for Americans During WWII

Last week I experienced an emotional interior life as I read Joy Neal Kidney’s nonfiction book Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II. 

I first met Joy through her blog attached to her website: JOYNEALKIDNEY.COM

Gradually, I realized that her family story was quite remarkable, and that Joy had put it into book form. Since Joy is a joy to communicate with on her blog and mine (articulate and kind), I decided to read her book, which was written in conjunction with Robin Grunder,  although WWII is not really “my area.”

Before I started the book, I already knew the gut punch of the book; it’s not a secret that one finds out only by reading. The horrifying reality is shared right on Joy’s website. Joy’s mother Doris had five brothers. All five young men entered the war on behalf of the United States. Only two brothers came home at the end.

Although it might seem counter to know this fact up front, it actually heightened the suspense because I was reading carefully for the details of their lives as the war began and then continued, luring one by one of the brothers into the war. I wasn’t sure who would survive and who wouldn’t—or what would happen to them before they died and how they would die. What a page turner!

I was captivated by the life of these Iowa farmers from the beginning. Hard working and smart, they also were satisfied with so little—simple, healthy food; satisfying work to perform; family togetherness; and aspirations for the future. I fell in love with each one of these brothers as they shared their hearts and lives through letters to family members, especially their mother Leora. They were not small-minded or selfish, but operated out of honor and a humble pride.

During the last section of the book, I was reading in the doctor’s waiting room because I couldn’t put the book down except when I absolutely  had to. I read something so really small, but so powerful, that I burst into tears right there in front of the other patients. That’s a warning to you if you read the book in public.

This book is not a novel. It doesn’t have the frills of one. Joy curated the letters and wove the story around  the letters in a very graceful way. I was so impressed with the powerful and understated writing skills that went into crafting the book. The editing job was also well done. Now I have much more feel for what my father-in-law went through in WWII. And for that entire generation.


My father-in-law Murray Scheshko (later known as Castle) was part of the 353rd Fighter Group that flew bombing missions over occupied Europe. They are considered heroes in England. Murray was not a pilot. He was staff sergeant, an “armourer,” which means that he was in charge of the weapons for the group. His file was destroyed in the 1973 National Archives fire, but there are records associated with his payment history. According to a transcript of the record he also served in the following “battles and campaigns”:

  • Air Offensive Europe
  • Central Europe
  • Normandy
  • Northern France
  • Rhineland
  • Ardennes-Alsace

Here is a photo of Murray:

Murray died in 1984 from a heart attack he experienced while on a commercial plane flight.

I never thanked him for his service.


Filed under #amrevising, #AmWriting, #writerslife, Book Review, History, Nonfiction, Writing

36 responses to “Book Review: Leora’s Letters OR How I Learned Empathy for Americans During WWII

  1. Your last line will have many of us praying an overdue thanks to ours, who served. Then, we will go get Joy’s book.

  2. Thank you for sharing this story (and Murray’s again)!

    I have that experience of reading something and bursting into tears in public (like when I was reading The Lovely Bones during my daughter’s piano lesson.)

    • Oh, that book title is a blast from the past. What a strange and unique book at the time.
      I think you would appreciate what Joy did in this book from a historian’s perspective.

  3. Amy

    I have this book on my Kindle already, thanks to your recommendation. I can’t wait to read it. Your review has made me even more eager to finish the book I am reading so I can start this one.

  4. Powerful story. Many of us who missed WWII don’t fully understand the concept of a world war. My dad was fortunate to miss it but many of my uncles served. Some of my older cousins too. One brought home a British wife who was a wonderful woman. Can’t imagine losing so many in the same family.

    • I grew up with Vietnam in the background. It was always a concern, but it seems a long way away from WWII–as you say a WORLD war. It seems astonishing, really.
      So many soldiers did experience more of the world than they ever would have otherwise and many married people they never would have met otherwise, but the price so many individuals and families had to pay for it!

  5. Such a powerfully emotional impact on you.

  6. You just did thank Murray again, Luanne.

  7. Sounds like another good one!

  8. Thank you so much, Luanne. Your burst of tears at the doctor nearly had me in tears, as I was so often going through the letters and telegrams. You can imagine that a couple of scenes were almost impossible to write. Thanks to you and other readers, and the new Dallas County Freedom Rock in Iowa, this family will never be forgotten.

    I’m glad to included information about your father-in-law so that his service also will never be forgotten.


    • Thanks for writing the book, Joy. I’m so glad your family’s sacrifice is being honored. Do you know where I burst into tears? I don’t want to give too much away to anyone who hasn’t yet read the book, but it was about the Bible inscription . . . .

      • It’s still hard to look at. I’ve become the owner of this compelling treasure. It’s so hard to imagine what my grandparents went through. I wonder at what point they actually opened it.

        • Just the thought of that . . . .
          If it’s not too personal, have you given thought to what happens to it after you? Will it go on in your family, being passed down or do you plan to donate it to the museum or something else?

          • Good question. I’ve thought about it and haven’t come up with the best place yet. A relative has Uncle Don Wilson’s medals, including the Navy Commendation Medal. I think they will go to the Dexter Museum. I’m taking some things of Danny and Junior to donate to the historic Washington Township School next month, donating copies of the books for their fund raiser. Just watching for where would be the best place/places for pilot log books, etc., to end up.

  9. One of the “joys” of my life has been the treasure trove of letters from my dad. I’m sure this book will be full of wonderful stories of these five patriots.
    Thanks for this review – WWII is actually one of my enduring and ardent interests. Will have to read this.

    • Treasure trove is the perfect term for such a collection!

    • Your letters are really so special. Letter writing is a lost art today. Future generations won’t have letters to remember loved ones by. Or in some cases even photos because nobody prints them out any more! This is a book you will want to read, Sheila!

  10. I hate to think that letter writing will be a completely lost art. I write a Christmas letter every year to friends and family. Several of my friends send letters as well. I am one who keeps such letters in pretty boxes and takes them out now and then to reread them. Letters are often very personal and convey things you might not otherwise be able to say. What if Leora did not write letters???

  11. Thanks for the book review and the caution about reading it in public. A number of my uncles served during WWII but I know little of their experience. I do know of my neighbor Teddy’s experience, that he was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and a POW for several months. I never thanked him for his service either, but I loved him and he knew that. I’m sure your stepfather knew you loved him and that might have been more important.

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  13. Excellent review of Joy’s book, Luanne! I, too, cried at the end, but in the privacy of my own living room. This is a book that should be taught in high school history classes.

  14. Thanks for the recommendation, Luanne. My mom’s memoirs (unpublished) are about her four brothers who were all in WWII at the same time. She was the youngest of eleven, so they were adults when she was still a child, but it had a heavy impact upon her. I am interested in Joy’s family and their experiences. My uncles are all gone now. Dave’s father and his two brothers were all in the war at the same time too, and one brother did not return. He was killed in a famous incident on the submarine, Wahoo, and a few books have been written about it.

    • Oh, I’m so sorry for your family! Imagine being the youngest of 11! That is really incredible, isn’t it?!

    • Carla, my grandmother Leora left hand-written memoirs. I’m writing her Depression Era stories this winter, as I’ve added my mother’s memories and found newspaper clippings, etc. But Leora’s early years are also so fascinating, that I hope to write that volume too. Her memoirs sent us to visit northern Minnesota and NE Nebraska just to see where her stories happened!

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