The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake Last year we had The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, the year before we had The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer - this year we have The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. The Postmistress is the novel that a publisher has targeted to promote and turn into a bestseller. Just out in paperback this novel will be the one we’re all reading in the coming year.
The novel is prefaced by a quote from Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War, “War happens to people, one by one. That is all I have to say, and it seems to me I have been saying it forever.” The novel begins with a short chapter that takes place years after the story at the centre of this novel – a Martha Gellhorn-like character thinks about the “war story” she did not file. I already knew I would like this story, and the writing makes it easy to love.
We are in the United States – Cape Cod - war is in the news but the attitude is that “we will not fight in a foreign city.” We meet our cast of characters, the newly graduated Dr. Will Fitch and his bride, Emma; and Iris James, the postmistress, and the man she loves, Harry Vale; and Frankie Bard, radio gal.
Frankie is stationed in England working for an American radio station, broadcasting from London during the Blitz; all of the others are in the United States, listening to her broadcasts, mesmerized by the intensity of her voice.
A tragedy in the United States sends Will off to England where he hopes to contribute to the war effort – leaving behind Emma, in isolation and desperation. The postmistress sees their letters flying back and forth across the Atlantic each day. Harry Vale, convinced that the United States is in danger of U-boat attack watches the shoreline, and, the postmistress. There are newsreels in the movie theatres about the progress of the war in Europe.
This novel captures perfectly the atmosphe of the time – the men smell of Old Spice, the women of lemon shampoo – they listen to the radio, they wait for letters. They talk on doorsteps.
Frankie Bard is so affected by the Blitz and the knowledge that the Jews of Europe are being exiled that she wants to report on this in a way that will jolt Americans into action over what is happening in Europe.
Frankie thinks “the Jews were in a permanent, ceaseless pogrom. And the patrician habit of deflecting strong passion or insight first into calmer waters, to reflect, to take stock, belonged to her mother’s generation. Fine for Mrs. Dalloway, impossible for Mrs. Woolf. A writer, a real writer, paddling fast in the middle in order to see as well, as closely as could be.”
Frankie gets herself permission to travel to Europe – with an early recording device to talk to people who are leaving on the trains, desperate to get themselves to a port, leaving with only what they can carry. For the people we know back in Cape Cod it is Frankie Bard’s voice, and her words, that bring the war into their lives.
Sarah Blake says she “wanted to write a war story that did not take place on the battlefield, but showed us around the edges of a war photograph or news report, into the moments just after or just before what we read or see or hear.” She succeeds in telling the story – and I have no doubt she will succeed in finding her book in the hands of a great many readers in the coming year.