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January 31, 2012

The Postmistress




The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
Fiction
2010 Amy Einhorn Books
Finished 1/20/12
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Those who carry the truth sometimes bear a terrible weight…

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 long ago gave up hope of ever being in love, yet they find themselves unexpectedly 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 fragile childhoods 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.

Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress shows how we bear the fact that war goes on around us while ordinary lives continue. Filled with stunning parallels to today, it is a remarkable novel.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a novel. I first heard about The Postmistress from a former coworker who said it was one of the best novels about World War II that she’d ever read. I love reading books set during that time period, so I tucked the title away in the back of my mind, knowing I’d get to it sooner or later. One afternoon at work, a customer whom I’ve come to know and who shares my taste in books, gave me her copy of The Postmistress, telling me how much she loved it and that she knew I would, too. I added it to my stacks, again, knowing I’d get to it sooner or later. Well, it turned out to be much later! The book is now available in paperback and I’ve only just read the hardcover. But it was well worth the wait!

“A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I’m telling everyone I know to read.” ~ Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help

I couldn’t agree more! I loved Blake’s novel, savoring each page, marking passage after passage. Early on, after establishing the relationship between all the characters, I was tempted to stop where I was reading and start all over from the very beginning. I had a feeling this was going to be a great book, one with which I would fall in love and be haunted by for years to come. I knew it was a rare book, much like The Book Thief, Atonement, and The Help. I could have read it much more quickly than two full weeks—it called to me during the day and I couldn’t wait to get home to return to the story—but I wanted to draw it out and make it last.

“Some novels we savor for their lapidary prose, others for their flesh-and-blood characters, and still others for a sweeping narrative arc that leaves us lightheaded and changed; Sarah Blake’s masterful The Postmistress serves us all this and more. Compassionate, insightful, and unsentimental, this masterful novel is told in a rare and highly successful omniscient voice, one that delves deeply into the seemingly random nature of love and war and story itself. This is a superb book!” ~ Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog

On wartime broadcasts:

“The story beneath the story,” Parkhurst agreed.

Frankie nodded. Bill Shirer wrote ten minutes of script for five minutes of airtime, and Murrow often finished every broadcast in a cold sweat, having orchestrated the news so that it went under the wire, his mind ahead of the censor’s bending and swaying to the imagined cut. Early on, she’d learned what she could say she saw—a full moon could be described as a bomber’s moon—and how to seed the story without telling the Germans, who were listening, what they heard. It was a dare—a dance up to the line. It was the performance of what is, what isn’t.

and

…We do not create mood, Murrow had lectured her when she’d first arrived, we tell what there is to tell. Our job is not to persuade. Just provide the honest news. One person to another. And when there isn’t any news, why, just say so. The news is not atmosphere (although there were shelves of disks at Broadcasting House that used to be used for just that—crickets and birdsongs, Big Ben sounding, and nearly sixty bands on one disk devoted to False Alarm: Cheerful Voices with Chink of Teacups). The war news now came live: the newsreaders’ voices, the microphone on the roof recording the progress of the bombs, and the conversation between broadcasters in the very moment of the Blitz. The world could listen to the war as though we were all pulled up to the fire.

On London’s Blitz:

By now, death had long since lost its power to shock. Everyone had a story: there were thousands piled up in London’s heart. But ever since the first of the year, Hitler had been playing with London’s nerves. There were three nights of bombing in January, then nothing for a week. Then again, and heavier. Then nothing. One day, then another in March, then nothing long enough for daffodils to appear and grass to start sprouting on the banks along the Thames. The city slid into April on a month of quiet. Then came the bombings of the Wednesday and the Saturday—bombs so bad, Ed Murrow joked, you wore your best clothes to bed in case your closet wasn’t standing in the morning. And since then, the memory of those nights had settled into everyone’s crouch, everyone’s quick steps, everyone’s fixed attention on the sky. Would they come again tonight? Or was it over? You didn’t know. You went to bed ready to run.

and

On May the tenth, one hundred bombs a minute rained down on London for five straight hours in what was the most devastating night of the Blitz. Fires exploded everywhere at once, and where there had been, even on the other nights, pockets of calm, dips of peace, that night the din in the skies could drive you mad. Hit were Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, and countless houses smashed to pieces.


Unimaginable.

I rarely ever make the time to reread a book, but this is one I want to return to. Rather than wait several years (which is my typical pattern for rereading), I am going to listen to the audio, as I just discovered that the reader is Orlagh Cassidy. She’s one of my favorite audio book readers! And it’s available for download from my library. Hurray!

Final Thoughts: Is it too early to declare my #1 read of 2012? Now to read Blake’s previous novel, Grange House!

Books added to my reading list:

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson

Murrow: his life and times by A.M. Sperber

No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A Stricken Field: A Novel by Martha Gellhorn

Click here to listen to Blake's excellent interview on NPR's All Things Considered.

15 comments:

  1. I liked this book but didn't love it as much as most people have. I'm glad you enjoyed it so much!

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  2. I'm so glad that this book spoke to you so clearly. Isn't it lovely when that happens? My book group discussed this one last April and I went back and read my thoughts. I do remember some things from the book, but not all. Perhaps I need to listen to it too or perhaps I need to put it on my reread pile. After reading your enthusiasm, I feel I want to read it again. I do remember going in to my husband when I had almost finished the book and saying I wasn't sure I could complete it. And I remember why. :-)

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  3. This has come up a couple of times as a possible book club selection, but we decided to wait until it was available in paperback. Now that it has your stamp of approval (and is available in paper), I'll just go ahead and read it on my own!

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  4. This book has been on my list. Time to move it to the top.

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  5. I really enjoyed this book. I am glad you did, too!

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  6. Gah! I missed this one in the remainder bin a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it's still at Hastings. Ack!

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  7. No Ordinary Time is WONDERFUL! It is so good that it reads as quickly as fiction. A friend recommended The Postmistress, and I bought it, but haven't read it. In fact, I gave my copy to Margaret. After she reads it, I'll give it a try, and come back and read you posting then, as well as listen to the interview. I want to read the biog. of Martha Gellhorn, and also some of her nonfiction.

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  8. I love it when we agree on books, Les! I just downloaded the audio file from the library. You and many others have raved about Orlagh Cassidy, and I can't wait to hear her read these wonderful words.

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  9. Although the war was over the year I was born, Murrow, Gellhorn and others shaped my view of what news should be - I suspect some of them are rolling over in the graves over the slow degradation of their profession.

    In any event, one of my friends who was in London during the bombing has read this book and commends it. She says that it does a good job of capturing the "feel" of the time. That's reason enough for me to read it.

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  10. Kathy - I was mildly disappointed with the ending, but overall, I really loved this book.

    Kay - It really is a special feeling when a book speaks to you. Email me and tell me why you weren't sure you could finish it. I think I know, but don't want to say here.

    JoAnn - I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Be patient with it in the beginning. It takes a little bit to get all the characters lined up.

    Pam - I think you'd really enjoy this one.

    Kelly - Wasn't it great? I'd love to see a movie of it, wouldn't you?

    Andi - Sorry! I'm keeping my copy. :)

    I know you've read Sara Waters and wanted to tell you this reminded me a bit of The Night Watch. I can't remember if you've read that one.

    Nan- I started No Ordinary Time many years ago (maybe with you and the other gals), but set it aside. I should either read it or listen to the audio (along with Truman!). I hope you borrow your copy of The Postmistress back from Margaret. It's so lovely and I think you'll enjoy. Drop me a note if you do read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Marcia - I love it when we agree on books, too!! I can't wait to listen to the audio version of this wonderful book. I think it's much better than The Guernsey book I read a few years ago. And better than The Night Watch by Sara Waters. Oh, it was so good.

    Linda - Yes, I suspect there's a generation of correspondents rolling over in their graves...

    Goodness, you have a friend who was in London during the Blitz?! What stories she must have. I read Sara Waters' The Night Watch a few years ago and it spoke of the bombings, but Blake really put a face on that aspect of the war. I don't think I'll ever forget some of her passages...

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  11. So many people have enjoyed this one. Now, I need to hunt down my copy that I loaned out to someone!!

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  12. Staci - Yes, hunt it down and start reading ASAP. It's wonderful and I really would like to see a film version, although that's always risky.

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  13. I keep getting this title and another confused. I need to get them straight especially after reading your enthusiasm for this one. I'm going to see if my library has the audiobook right now. :)

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  14. It's on hold! Thanks! :)

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  15. Joy - I was getting it confused with The Paris Wife for a while there. Still need to read that one, too.

    Glad you got it on hold at your library. You're in for a treat!

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