Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

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 follow's 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.



I finished this book last week and I've been struggling with the exact words to write this review and do it justice. It is a book that I really enjoyed, the kind that makes you think about human nature, about past events but also of its echoes in today's world. It was also a book that made me sob like a baby in some scenes and that I closed with a satisfied sigh.

This is a story set during WWII. In the US in Franklin, a small town in Massachusetts, Iris James is the postmistress. She takes her job very seriously, she knows many of the town's people secrets and she sees herself as a keeper of those secrets. Every written news posted goes through her and she observes everyone else in town and reflects about their behaviour. She feels a special connection with Harry Vale, the town's mechanic who is convinced a German U-Boat will eventually arrive at their shores and keeps watching the ocean.

Frankie Baird is an American living in London during the Blitz. She is a journalist and every day her voice on the radio reaches Franklin and let's people know of the war happening in Europe and of the journey the Jews are being forced to make to reach safety. Frankie feels she is not doing enough to spread the awareness of what is really going on and that there is nothing more important than telling the truth to the world about what is really going on.

Emma Trask is a young newlywed. She just married Franklin's doctor and they share a happy existence till he loses one of his patients in childbirth and feels he must go to London and help in the hospitals as a sort of atonement. Emma is left pregnant and her life revolves around her trips to the post office to send the letters to her husband and receive his.

Frankie meets Emma's husband in London. She sees him die in a car accident and eventually finds herself the bearer of a letter from him to Emma that she ends up never delivering. Similarly Iris receives the letter that informs Emma of the accident and also decides to keep it. Frankie finally gets her wish to go to the continent and travel by train from Berlin to the border with Spain. During her journey she will meet a lot of people, Jews, on the run from what is happening in Germany and the occupied countries and trying to reach Lisbon so they can sail for America. Better than telling their story she gives them voice by recording who they are, where they are from and where they hope to go to... from them she learns the horrors of leaving people behind, of being saved by luck or coincidence and that everything can be lost in a matter of seconds and the lack of valid papers. Frankie also learns that sometimes the story gets to you and you can't just "get out" as her boss used to tell her to.

Eventually the three women meet in Franklin where besides Iris and Emma no one seems really to be aware of what is going on or actually care much about it.

I was fascinated but Frankie's broadcasts. I can easily imagine not only these characters but real people during WWII sitting at home next to their radios and waiting to hear news of the countries at war. How important it was for the truth to be told and how heavy a burden that must have been for those who chose to place themselves in danger to tell it. Not because they are in danger but because they are changed forever by what they have experienced. I thought the book raised very interesting questions, some of which are personal and may have different answers for each of us. Other questions may not have satisfying answers... but it is important that we mention them. It was a story that intrigued me and moved me... I was left wanting to know what became of those three women after all that happened to them... and I just love books that make me think and leave me wanting more…

Grade: 4.5/5

I would like to thank Lydia Hirt at G.P. Putnam's Sons / Riverhead for sending it to me. The hardcover is released today in the US.

21 comments:

  1. this sounds like an interesting and emotional read, and what a pretty cover.

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  2. I'm happy to read about a book set in the WW II era--slightly later than the decade I find most interesting, but still, nice to see some twentieth century work! Not that I have anything against the Middle Ages....but the 30's and the 40's had a unique tension all their own.

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  3. Great review! The more I read about this book, the more I want to read it. Certainly it will be added to my TBR pile!

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  4. I have this coming from the library soon. I guess I might have to think about not reading it on the train!

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