Maggie A. Cross is a journalism student at Columbia University who runs a crossword blog along with her roommate Amanda, under pseudonyms. And while she doesn’t realize it, her professor pseudonymously runs a rival crossword blog along with his teaching assistant, Derry Down. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, when Maggie submits a crossword to the New York Times for consideration, she hears back…from the Times’ first crossword editor Margaret Farrar, who probably shouldn’t be providing editorial feedback on crosswords considering she’s been dead for almost 40 years.
This story of Maggie Cross and Derry Down’s tempestuous rivalry as well as the mystery of Margaret Farrar’s ghostly correspondence unfolds in Letters to Margaret, a graphic novel with a puzzling twist. As the novel progresses, readers are given the option to solve just shy of a dozen crosswords referenced in the book, including a series of puzzles that show Maggie’s guidance under the somewhat archaic tutelage of Margaret Farrar. Written by illustrated by Hayley Gold (who previously ran the crossword review webcomic Across and Down) and published by Lone Shark Games, Letters to Margaret‘s Kickstarter campaign will be running for the next two weeks (until March 29th). The campaign has already surpassed its funding goal, raising $31K from over 700 backers, at the time of this article. But the puzzling doesn’t end with crosswords.
Crossed Words: A Single Story, Two Perspectives
The book is split between Maggie and Derry’s perspectives. While Derry is frustrated by the racist, sexist, and exclusionary elements that often pop up in crossword puzzles, Maggie believes that calls to restrict the language in crosswords are going too far, stifling the creativity of constructors. This thematic split is echoed in the structure of the graphic novel, as the events unfold from Maggie’s perspective starting on one end of the book, and switch to Derry’s perspective on the other end, eventually meeting in the middle. Readers can choose to read the entire book from a single perspective before flipping over to see the other side, or can alternatively hop between chapters to see the book unfold in a rough approximation of chronological order. Both options are equally valid, although I’d recommend swapping perspectives every chapter, as flipping perspectives feels more powerful when the other half is still fresh in your mind.
At its heart, Letters to Margaret is a graphic novel about the power of words. Every character in the graphic novel shares a love for the English language, even the book’s duo of Statler and Waldorf style sentient arrow commentators. The book is packed to the brim with all the trivia, mixed metaphors, spoonerisms, and puns you could ever hope for, and much of the comedy in this romantic comedy comes from those moments of wordplay.
And while Maggie and Derry approach crosswords from different perspectives, the fact that the choice of words matters (whether they’re strung together into sentences or strategically placed in a 15×15 grid) is not up for debate. Where things get complicated and thorny is the question of where to draw the gridded lines. This is an issue the crossword community has been grappling with, and Letters to Margaret manages to illustrate that complexity with consideration and finesse. And while it may not provide answers to all the questions, it hopefully helps deepen the understanding of the questions themselves.Continue reading