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Book Review: *The Postmistress* by Sarah Blake

  • The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam (February 9, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399156199
  • Back-of-the-book blurb:  It is 1940. France has fallen. Bombs are dropping on London. And President Roosevelt is promising he won’t send our boys to fight in “foreign wars.”  But American radio gal Frankie Bard, the first woman to report from the Blitz in London, wants nothing more than to bring the war home. Frankie’s radio dispatches crackle across the Atlantic ocean, imploring listeners to pay attention–as the Nazis bomb London nightly, and Jewish refugees stream across Europe. Frankie is convinced that if she can just get the right story, it will wake Americans to action and they will join the fight.

    Meanwhile, in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on Cape Cod, Iris James hears Frankie’s broadcasts and knows that it is only a matter of time before the war arrives on Franklin’s shores. In charge of the town’s mail, Iris believes that her job is to deliver and keep people’s secrets, passing along the news that letters carry. And one secret she keeps are her feelings for Harry Vale, the town mechanic, who inspects the ocean daily, searching in vain for German U-boats he is certain will come. Two single people in midlife, Iris and Harry find themselves drawn toward each other.

    Listening to Frankie as well are Will and Emma Fitch, the town’s doctor and his new wife, both trying to escape a fragile childhood and forge a brighter future. When Will follows Frankie’s siren call into the war, Emma’s worst fears are realized. Promising to return in six months, Will goes to London to offer his help, and the lives of the three women entwine.

    Alternating between an America still cocooned in its inability to grasp the danger at hand and a Europe being torn apart by war, The Postmistress gives us two women who find themselves unable to deliver the news, and a third woman desperately waiting for news yet afraid to hear it.

    She is Too Fond of Books’ review:  The Postmistress opens at a dinner party set in the present day.  Frances “Frankie” Bard poses this question to the guests: “What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?”  Then she tells the reader:

    Long ago, I believed that, given a choice, people would turn to good as they would to the light. I believed that reporting – honest, unflinching pictures of the truth – could be a beacon to lead us to demand that wrongs be righted, injustices punished, and the weak and the innocent cared for … But I have covered far too many wars … to believe in … a single beam of truth to shine into the dark.  Every story – love or war – is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.

    Here is the war story I never filed.  I began it at the end of the forties … What I knew at the time is pieced together here with the parts I couldn’t have known, but imagine to be true.

    Blake switches to an omniscient narrator at this point, and the bulk of the novel is told in the third person; it’s easy to forget that Frankie Bard is handing the story to us, because we get a fairly even distribution of the three viewpoints until about midway through.  However, her words in this opening provide foreshadowing and explain her motivation as the novel progresses.

    Franklin, Massachusetts is the name Blake has given to her fictionalized Provincetown (which caused me some confusion at first, as Franklin is the name of a real town about 35 miles southwest of Boston, not on the Cape).  In Blake’s Franklin, the outermost town on Cape Cod, the throngs of summertime beach-goers running on casual vacation time contrast with the orderliness of Iris James’ routines at the post office and Harry Vale’s determined scanning of the Atlantic, ever on the lookout for German invaders.

    I admired the three female lead characters for their very different personalities – Iris James, the postmaster of Franklin is all about order, routine, propriety.  What is it then, that causes her to shirk this responsibility, to divert mail from its intended recipient? 

    Emma Fitch is innocent, in every sense of the word.  She has led a sheltered life and wants only to settle down in what she imagines will be a fairytale lifestyle with her new husband, Will Fitch, the town doctor.  Why does Emma keep to herself?  Is she shy, or burdened by the mantle of her husband’s family?  Will she allow townspeople to support her when she needs it, or will her armor of pride prove to be impenetrable?

    Frankie Bard is my favorite – perhaps because of her adventurous spirit and her desire to do more than “Get in. Get the story.  Get out” as she has been instructed.  Is it a flaw that Frankie gets emotionally involved in her stories, that she becomes vested in the outcome of the people she reports on?  Or does her strong female voice cause people in America to sit up and notice what’s going on past the sandy beaches of Franklin and across the Atlantic to Europe?

    Bard wants to report what she sees; she feels that if Americans knew what was happening in Europe, they’d be called to action.  Because of censors and her bosses admonitions to report facts, not emotions, she is told that rather than broadcast that

    …”the streets are rivers of blood.  Say that the little policeman you usually say hello to every morning is not there today.”

    Frankie Bard is able to capture the voices of people in mass exodus from occupied Europe.  The way she does this, both her personal techniques in talking to people and the new technology she uses, combine in a unique and haunting way.

    Blake writes The Postmistress in four parts, corresponding to the seasons Fall 1940 through Summer 1941.  The first two sections introduce us to the characters and allow us to observe their routines; the day-to-day of life in Franklin contrasts markedly with the Blitz in London as it is experienced by Frankie.  It is at the halfway mark that I read a passage that knocked me in the stomach.  Then another.  And yet another.  The last two sections were pageturners, and I had tears running down my cheeks at several parts.

    Two very strong themes have been with me since I finished reading the novel.  The first is the question posed by Will Fitch, “What happens to a story around its edges?  … What happens after the part you gave us?”  He wants to follow up on the people he hears about on the broadcasts.  We hear a snippet of a human interest story – what happens to those people after the reporter leaves, after we turn off our radios? 

    I’ve also been thinking a lot about predestination versus free will.  Blake alludes to this with the detailed description of the order of the postmistress’ day, her routines of raising and lowering the flag, sorting the mail, the precise clunk of the franking machine as a postmark is stamped.  Iris James believes that:

    There is an order running beneath us, an order and a reason, and every letter sent, every goddamned letter sent and received, proves it.  Something begins, somethings finishes.  Something is sent, something arrives.  Every day.  Every hour.  As long as there are letters –

    I feel The Postmistress will be very well-received by book groups; some topics for discussion include our responses to perception and reality, and the desire at times to live as if a false perception is the truth.  There are parallels to current events, with questions about how news is disbursed, how images are managed, and whether we choose to get involved or deny the evidence.  Readers might also discuss the pacing (the relative easy pace of the first half in contrast with the rapid developments of the second), and the value/necessity of certain scenes … no spoilers here, email me after you’ve read it, if you’d like.  My Skype book group will be disucssing The Postmistress in April, I’ll post a recap of our comments then.

    FTC disclosure: review copy provided by the publisher

    51 comments to Book Review: *The Postmistress* by Sarah Blake

    • Jade

      I am looking into the roles of Frankie and iris in delivering news and communicating with people who are close to them. I’m stuck on the relationship of harry and iris, I know their lack of communication caused their relationship to develop slowly but what other significant problems did it cause? if any?

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