The Letter Writer places the fictional character, young Harriet Whitehead, in the midst of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831. Harriet, a sort of family stepchild, sympathizes with the slaves her family holds, including the "girl" assigned to her, Violet. Harriet also despises her elder half-brother Richard, a minister with a firm hand, and her half-sister Margaret, with whom she has never gotten along. She does, however, get along with her "stepmother" (known as Mother Whitehead)and it is with Mother Whitehead that she spends a good deal of time, writing letters for the mostly blind older woman. In the course of daily life on the plantation, Harriet meets and comes to know Nat Turner, a slave who would lead the bloodiest rebellion against owners in history. Harriet doesn't see Turner as a threat at first; his preaching and polite ways make him seem approachable and reasonable. But it is this facade that eventually convinces Harriet to do something for Turner that she realizes way too late may have led to the massacre itself.
Rinaldi always does impeccable research for her novels, and her insertion of Harriet into this story is seamless and realistic. Rinaldi also says in her Author's Notes that she purposely didn't treat Turner one way or the other, leaving the reader to decide if he was a hero or a murderer. But it's this detail that makes the novel feel as though it's lacking depth. Harriet is a great voice to tell this horrific story, but I needed more: more interaction among the characters, more reasons for characters' actions, more inner voice. While I felt she did a credible job, nothing felt fleshed out and the ending was way too "fairy tale" (to use her own words).
Even though I did end up liking this novel quite a bit, I find myself missing the Rinaldi I used to read, the one who expanded the stories,adding to them in such a way that I felt the characters came alive from the pages. This one felt rushed, as have the last few of hers I've read. That said, Rinaldi is still head and shoulders above most young adult historical fiction writers. I'm rounding 3.5 stars up to 4 based on the research and my fondness for Rinaldi overall.