Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake follows the lives of three very different women through the pivotal war year of 1940. World events and age old themes of love and loss will bind these women together in ways that one of them will never realize. Iris James is 40 something, single, and only recently assigned as the Postmaster (as she says, there are no postmistresses in the US Postal Service) to Franklin, Mass., a coastal town. Her duties are a sacred oath to Iris until the day she decides not to deliver a letter given to her by young Doctor Fitch with the instructions to give the letter to his young wife Emma if no daily letter should arrive for her from London where he is going. Young

Emma, it appears is a fragile thing. After the loss of her parents, she felt herself simply disappear, an almost invisible being, noticed and cared for by no one until Will Fitch enters her life. Their love and marriage give her a new reality and hope. When the nightly news reports from the bombed city of London drive Will into making his own journey there to offer his medical expertise, Emma is devastated but does not stop him. It is Will’s decision to go there that will put in motion the events that bring the three women of the novel together.

Frankie Bard, a young American journalist, whose strong emotional voice narrates the novel, as well as gives voice to daily European radio reports on Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts, meets Will Fitch one day in an air raid shelter. The few hours that they spend together and a scene that she witnesses right after both leave the shelter will change her life and views. Feeling the weight of all she has experienced in London, she accepts an assignment to travel the trains of occupied France and war torn Europe to record the voices of ordinary people – people we will later see are Jewish families trying to escape the unspeakable. All the while Frankie travels, she carries, but does not mail, a letter to Emma written by Will. It is through Frankie’s eyes that readers will experience the human side of WWII, first in London’s air raid shelters and then later across the European countryside. You will hear the tears and screams that she hears along side the quiet voices of courage and determination. When she returns to America months later, emotionally exhausted, you will understand why. Being a modern reader, you may even have a name for her state of mind – post-traumatic stress syndrome. As the tourist season wanes, Frankie makes her way to Franklin, Mass. Always the observer, she watches the small town and listens as they prepare for war. Still with her is the letter from Will to Emma. I borrowed an audio version of this book for my mp3 player. It was a compelling listen. The shift among characters and places was well done and I found myself equally interested in London, the European train scenes, the American seaside, and the radio broadcasts that tied them together.

In an afterward, the author shares that the portable recording device that she had Frankie use while on the train did not actually exist until 1942 or 1943, but it was a writer’s license she employed to give the impeding horror of Europe more impact. Actually, I thought putting the device into the story detracted from historical authenticity. I guess you can argue authenticity of feeling and emotion vs. authenticity of facts. For me, the biggest impact is despite each American’s assurance that they were “informed” and understood the world an ocean away, they actually knew nothing and understood nothing. More than a half century later and with instantaneous communication, our ability to understand what is happening anywhere else is probably as flawed.

I would recommend The Postmistress to those who have liked other recent historical fiction like The Reader, Sarah’s Key, The Help, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

My laptop is acting up today so I am relying on an older one, which means that blogger is not cooperating. Can't get a picture posted. Sorry!!

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