Review: The Mailbox

Vernon Culligan had been dead to the town of Draydon, Virginia, so long that when the crusty Vietnam vet finally died, only one person noticed. Twelve-year-old Gabe grew up in the foster care system until a social worker located his Uncle Vernon two years before. When he comes home to discover that his uncle has died of a heart attack, he’s terrifed of going back into the system–so he tells no one. The next day, he discovers a strange note in his mailbox: I HAVE A SECRET. DO NOT BE AFRAID. And his uncle’s body is gone.

Thus begins a unique correspondence destined to save the two people that depended on Vernon for everything. Through flashbacks, we learn about Gabe and Vernon’s relationship, and how finding each other saved them both from lives of suffering. But eventually, Vernon’s death will be discovered, and how will Gabe and the mystery note writer learn to move forward? THE MAILBOX is not a story about death–though it begins with a death. It’s also not a story about Vietnam vets, although the author works with Vietnam veterans and wrote this novel, in part, to illuminate their sacrifices and suffering. THE MAILBOX is a story about connections–about how two people in need can save each other.–From Goodreads

The Mailbox, by Audrey Shafer, explores the connection between a young boy named Gabe and the Vietnam Vet Uncle he was placed with after years in foster care. The book, which was published in 2006, remains timely in an era in which so many families will have relatives returning home from war. The Mailbox beautifully depicts Uncle Vernon and his friend Smitty as heroic men suffering from the aftermath of killing people in Vietnam. I’m glad that younger readers will have an opportunity to see a small portion of the reality of war and the sacrifices made by those who go off to fight, as well as the recognition given to Veterans who pass away.

The story, though, is not really about Uncle Vernon’s service. It explores the relationship between Vernon and Gabe, the lessons they taught each other, and how Gabe uses the strength he gained from his Uncle’s care to move on after Vernon’s death. The book, which is in part a mystery, moves quickly toward an uplifting conclusion reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Many people tell me that I read a lot of “dark” books, but truthfully, this book and most of the others I read offer enough hope in the end to balance out the sadness with which they began. Books and life are about balance, and this one does a nice job of evening out feelings of grief, loneliness, redemption, and optimism.

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