Monday, April 05, 2010

Alphabet in Historical Fiction: I is for ....

It is time for the next entry in the Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge that is being run over at Historical Tapestry. This time I am focusing on Sarah Blake's The Postmistress. Luckily for me, this novel also counts for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the Pub 2010 Reading Challenge.

Hold on a minute, how does this book fit the letter I? Well, one of the three main female characters is Iris James, the postmistress of the small Massachusetts town of Franklin during WWII.

Here is the 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 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.

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.
In 1940, Europe was at war. London was being bombarded by the Germans, the Jews were being rounded up, but the US was sitting on the sidelines, choosing to stay out of the war with President Roosevelt promising that he would not be sending the young men of America to war. History tells us that that changed in due course, but at that time, the horror of war had not yet fully impacted on the US.

The three main characters in this novel are Frankie Bard, Emma Fitch and Iris James - three women whose lives intersect in ways that they would never have thought of. Emma is a young woman who was has spent much of her life alone. We meet her as she is travelling on the bus into Franklin for the first time, an anxious young newlywed who is moving to the town to start her life with her new husband, Will, who is the town doctor. When a baby delivery goes wrong, Emma's husband Will decides to head to London to volunteer to help in the hospitals of the bombarded city, leaving her behind in a town full of people that she barely knows.

Iris is also on the bus, having travelled into the city for reasons of her own. To be fair, Iris is something of an odd woman. She is approaching middle age, never been married, and is the postmistress of the town. For her, there are very few shades of grey. Everything is done in accordance with the post office regulations, down to the letter, and there are no exceptions. She is also a keen observer of the people in her town. She knows many of their secrets, and she is often the first person to know when something happens due to her being the one who receives the letters and telegrams that make their way through the post office. This may make her sound a little rigid, but whilst her working life has been dictated by the rules of the post office, she is also a woman on the brink of a major change in her life. Whilst she knows their secrets, not many people know her secrets, including her feelings for the local mechanic, Harry Vale. Harry is himself something of an outsider in the town, increasingly convinced that the Germans may well choose to invade American by landing on their coast, and therefore he too is an observer, watching every day for signs of imminent invasion.

Of the three women, the story that I found most interesting is that of Frankie Bard. She is a young journalist working in London with the legendary reporter Edward R Murrow. Daily she tells the stories of what she sees around her, the young boy who survives a bombing only to find out that his family all died, the experiences of going into the underground bomb shelters, with those experiences being broadcast back to America into the homes of many people, including those in Franklin. At first I wasn't sure that I would connect with Frankie. In the opening part of the book she has something of a 'lets live for today' attitude, but as the book progresses and as tragedy begins to touch her personally, Frankie becomes more and more convinced that there are more stories that need to be told, that there really is something going on in Europe in relation to the Jews, that America really needs to hear these truths, and that she should be the one who tells them.

Frankie eventually convinces her bosses to give her that chance and so she finds herself riding the trains of Europe, heading initially to Germany, but then catching trains where ever she can so that she can record the voices and the stories of the lucky few people who not only manage to get the necessary paperwork to flee their homes, but also then manage to get on the few trains within the timeframes specified on their visas. As much as I enjoy reading about WWII (if enjoy is the right word), I think this is the first time I have seen this kind of perspective - an outsider trying to convince the hearts and minds of a country many miles away of what exactly was going on.

As events unfold, Iris has to reevaluate her role, and decide if some times it is better for the truth not to be revealed, whilst for Frankie the delivery of the truth takes it's toll on her emotionally and physically, and for Emma, she waits, not knowing what is happening so far away and hoping that no news some times really is good news. If there is a weakness in the novel it is in the length of time that the central issue for Iris takes to be explored, but this is a minor issue in my opinion.

Normally, I tend to read a book and then that is it. If I got it from the library I can comfortably return the book, knowing that I enjoyed it, but not thinking too much more about it. I can see this book as being an exception, and that I am going to have to buy it and have it sitting on my bookshelf. I suspect it is the kind of book where you will be able to see something new within the narrative each time that you read it!

Whilst an emotive telling of those bleak days in London at the beginning of the war, and in the even bleaker days in Europe, this is also an interesting study of the nature of truth - how much should be revealed and when, both on a large and a personal scale.

My truth is this - this is a book that is highly recommended for anyone with a specific interest in WWII, or who wants to read about the human side of war.

Rating 4.5/5


  1. I have been reading so many reviews of this book lately, and a lot of them are mized. Some people seem to love it and others don't. This will definitely go onto my wishlist.

  2. I've been undecided about buying this. Having read your review, my mind is made up; it sounds like a book I would enjoy. Glad you liked it!

  3. This is not something I would normally read, but it's interesting enough and the points of view are compelling. Those who survivied WWII never cease to amaze me, becuase I don't think the majority of people today could do the same. Excellent review Marge.

  4. That sounds like a good one--I'd never heard of it before, and I will add it too my list!

  5. I'm glad to hear your take on this, since, as Becky said, there have been a variety of opinions. Glad you liked it!

  6. It really does sound terrific:) Thanks Marg- I'll have to note this one.

    BTW- love this look for your blog!

  7. First, been meaning to say--love what you've done with the blog! Second, I've been meaning to read this--sounds like it won't be a disappointment!

  8. You know that I loved this book as well. I'm glad we agree.