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THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake

Blake For a number of reasons, I liked The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. It's an intense story about three women during the early years of WWII – Iris, a postmistress on Cape Cod; Emma, the young wife of a doctor who goes to London to help out during the bombings in 1941; and Frankie, a young American radio journalist doing war dispatches from Europe. These three women's stories together form the foundation of this book about war and personal duty/responsibility.

What I liked:

First, Blake is a very elegant writer. Her prose is understated and very powerful. She got into the heads of these three very different women, and made them sympathetic and relatable.

Second, The Postmistress is very powerful. There were some very difficult wartime scenes that I found myself racing through to get them over with because they were just that painful to read. Blake's depiction of desperate and displaced Europeans – mostly Jews – trying to get onto trains to take them anywhere they could go, was heartbreaking. And the scenes of young children losing their parents, whether on the Cape, London, or under the Gestapo's militant eye, will stay with me for a long time.

Third, The Postmistress is thought-provoking and relevant to our lives today, where wars are fought in far-away places and barely impact daily life. Don't we, as Americans, have a responsibility, simply, to pay attention? Why is it so easy to ignore the atrocities that we can't really see?

Now to what I didn't like as much about The Postmistress. I understand that Frankie and Iris were both postmistresses of sort, in that they were both entrusted with messages that they were duty-bound to  deliver, but didn't. I found, though, that the exchanges between Frankie and Iris toward the end of the book rang hollow. There was too much pondering and questioning, which I just couldn't see these two women engaging in.

Second, I was disappointed in Frankie. How could she travel those trains in Europe, recording those doomed yet cautiously hopeful voices, and not figure out how to share them with her listeners? Her total shutdown at the end of the book and her subsequent withdrawal from broadcasting seemed out of character, and was immensely frustrating. Maybe Blake felt that she couldn't take liberties with history by broadcasting the voices and making Americans aware of what was happening, for in reality, we turned a blind eye for too many years.

Finally, The Postmistress could have used a little more editing. It got repetitive in places, especially Frankie's chapters. By the end, we knew what she had witnessed in Europe and didn't need to hear it over and over.

In all, I really liked this book. It's not perfect, but it is a very good read, and was definitely worth my time. I was fortunate to attend a Q&A with Sarah Blake about The Postmistress earlier this year here in DC – here is my writeup.

Hi FTC! Guess what? I bought this book with my own hard-earned cash.

Q&A with Sarah Blake, author of THE POSTMISTRESS

On Sunday, I attended a reading at Politics & Prose by Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress. I haven't read The Postmistress yet, but have read great reviews of it. So I decided to check out Blake's reading, and I am glad I did. (I also got the chance to meet Swapna from S. Krishna's Books and Rebecca from The Book Lady's Blog in real life, which was a treat!)

If you're not familiar with the book, here is a description from Amazon:

Blake Weaving together the stories of three very different women loosely tied
to each other, debut novelist Blake takes readers back and forth
between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. Single,
40-year-old postmistress Iris James and young newlywed Emma Trask are
both new arrivals to Franklin, Mass., on Cape Cod. While Iris and Emma
go about their daily lives, they follow American reporter Frankie Bard
on the radio as she delivers powerful and personal accounts from the
London Blitz and elsewhere in Europe. While Trask waits for the return
of her husband—a volunteer doctor stationed in England—James comes
across a letter with valuable information that she chooses to hide.
Blake captures two different worlds—a naïve nation in denial and,
across the ocean, a continent wracked with terror—with a deft sense of
character and plot, and a perfect willingness to take on big, complex
questions, such as the merits of truth and truth-telling in wartime.

Blake read from the first chapter of the book, and it sounds very promising. It's on my TBR list!

Blake opened by saying that The Postmistress is a war novel that takes place off the battlefield. She set it in 1941-1942 because the U.S. wasn't in the war yet at that time, so that she could move back and forth between the two states (being at war and not yet being at war).

Here are some questions she answered at the reading tonight:

Q: What process did you go through to immerse yourself in the period?

A: I backed into writing a novel set in 1941. I came up with the premise (a letter not delivered), and then realized I needed to set it a while back for it to work. At the time, it was just after 9/11, and I was feeling uncertain about where I was. That drew me to 1941. I read contemporary authors – Mary McCarthy, Robert Penn Warren – and watched movies from the era to get the diction right. I spoke to people on Cape Cod in their 90s to get their WWII stories. I also went to the Museum of Radio, where I heard Murrow's narration of a bomb run over Berlin. All of that immediately drew me in.

Q: Your cover features a lovely – but feminine – purple flower. How do you get readers of both genders interested in The Postmistress?

A: It's a war novel, told through womens' stories. I hope that people will try it despite the cover – men like purple flowers too!

Q: Your book ends with certain of the key characters not there. Why?

A: The book opens with Frankie Bard in the present time, when she's in her 80s. She is at a dinner party, where people are saying that the wars of the past were "clearer". Her goal is to disprove that; to tell the war stories she never filed. That is all within her consciousness and ambition. Those characters are not her story.

Q: Some of the post meaningful scenes in the book are the most mundane. How do you do that? How do you create an everyday life scene that become such a clear pictures?

A: I wrote about war in its dailiness. While researching, specific to war, I came across an iconic photo at the end of 2000 of a Palestinian man holding his son in the midst of crossfire. I was trying to imagine and write about the outside of that photo frame, the outside of war's accident. What happens to the people outside the frame who pick up their bag and keep walking when that moment passes? I wanted to understand and recognize that war can be going on at the same moment as these other stories.

Q: Why is the book called "The Postmistress" when it is really Frankie's story?

A: Iris, the postmistress, was fairly sure that as long as there is a god, he walks in the United States Postal Service. There is a great sense of order. She considers herself the postmistress, and Frankie calls her that. But I was interested in the moments for both women when they felt they couldn't bear or tell the news. Both Frankie and Iris became postmistresses, slightly off, not adhering to their jobs. So "postmistress" refers to Frankie as well.

Q: You had a new house, and a new baby, on 9/11, when you were writing this book. How did that affect you?

A: It was a huge moment. I was trying to make sense of what happened, and trying to get to know DC, and home with a 3 week-old baby. I found my way to writing about the daily and the mundane.

Q: Do you consider The Postmistress historical fiction?

A: Historical fiction has its own baggage. Just like my first novel, I chose a non-contemporary setting. It gave me freedom to ask questions and create characters I could play with. I love the speech and patterns and language of other times. Yes, this is historical fiction, but I am leery of what that implies.