January 31, 2012
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
2010 Amy Einhorn Books
Rating: 4.75/5 (Terrific!)
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.
…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.
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.
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.