The front cover reflects the 939 letters Henry Contois wrote to his wife, Doris.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — After three years in the Army, Henry Contois was eager to leave France for his hometown of North Adams.
"What a life this is waiting to go home after being away so long," he wrote his wife, Doris. "Don't think I'm losing courage, Honey, but honest I'm sick and tired of it all. But one thing I know, I'm not alone. There's plenty of other soldiers waiting just as I am."
They were reunited a few weeks later. His letter, written in March 1946, would be among last of more than 900 he wrote home during his military service. Doris kept every single one, and they were tucked away untouched in the couple's home on Kemp Avenue for 66 years.
"We knew the letters were up there," said Carol Ethier-Kipp, Henry and Doris' daughter. "It was kind of like, the unspoken treasure that no one ever spoke of in the garage attic."
Her son Glenn had bought the house and decided to do some renovations. What did she want to do with the letters, he asked?
"First I sat down and read them all. ... After I read them all, I said to myself, I've got to do something with these things," she said. "There's definitely a story here of World War II, coping with World War II, and dealing with the anguish and the worry and all of that."
The retired Stamford, Vt., schoolteacher would turn this epistolary treasure into a book of memories — of a wartime experience, of North Adams, and of a love story.
"A Soldier's Letters Home: Keep the Home Fires Burning" uses family photos, newspaper articles and documents and, of course, the treasure trove of letters to show what life was like for the couple during the Henry's World War II service.
Henry and Doris had written each other almost every day. Ethier-Kipp only had one side of the story because Doris' letters no longer existed — but she could extrapolate their content from what her father was writing back.
"I looked for a story that would pull all the letters together," she said. "I could see from both sides how he was worried about her and, and coping with all that was going on with basic training and being sent overseas and trying not to worry her. And she was back home saying how well she was coping."
"Keep the Home Fires Burning" came from Henry's worries over Doris' ability to keep their coal-fired heating system operating. He left in the summer of 1943 and his letters were full of questions and advice about the coal stove. In later years, he would often say goodbye to his wife with this phrase, a private meaning between them that Ethier-Kipp didn't understand until reading the letters.
"I think, too, is that this is less of a military look at World War II and more of an emotional look at how couples were dealing with things," she said.
Henry Contois and Doris Bourdon had attended Notre Dame School together as children but didn't reconnect again until they were adults. The dated for two years and married in 1938. He was working at the Hoosac Cotton Mill and she at Sprague Specialty when he was drafted in 1943.
Ethier-Kipp, who was born a year after her father returned home, felt a responsibility to bring their story light as the Greatest Generation is fading away.
"It was very emotional for me and sometimes I would write and then I'd have to stop for a few days because it would really get to me emotionally," she said. "I don't remember my father talking about it at all. And now all of a sudden I was reading about it. My God, they went through all of this, it was such an eye-opener to me."
She was encouraged by her husband and sons, and her cousin Virginia Duval, a copy editor who offered her assistance. Keith Bona designed the cover and offered guidance on getting it published.
Her sons each got a copy. "I think they're pretty impressed with their grandfather and grandmother," she said.
And her mother provided guidance as well. Henry couldn't tell her where he was but he kept a little book with dates and places. Doris transcribed his itinerary into a service record book along with photos and newspaper articles. Ethier-Kipp was able to track where her father's letters were coming from by cross-referencing the book her mother had done.
"It was amazing. Without that I would have been in the dark about most of it but I was able to pretty much intertwine where he was ... most of the time," she said. "It was the backbone of my writing. I just didn't have to second guess where he was."
Henry served in the Medical Corps and was stationed in Great Britain and then in France after D-Day.
"I have been lucky not to be on the front lines. I am still alive. And that's something," he wrote Doris in 1945. "There are plenty of fellows I took basic with that are dead. ... Keep your chin up, Honey. This can't go on forever."
He came home and went back to work, later operating Contois Oil Burner Sales & Service until retiring in 1985. Doris would leave Sprague to keep his books. They raised Ethier-Kipp, their only child, on Kemp Avenue. Doris died in 1991 and Henry in 2002.
"I think my parents would be proud," Ethier-Kipp said.
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