Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book Review - The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

Title: The Postmistress
Author: Sarah Blake
Date Published: February 2010
Publisher: Putnam/Amy Einhorn Books
Pages: 336
ISBN: 978-0399156199
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: What would happen if a postmistress chose not to deliver the mail?
It is 1940. While the war is raging in Europe, President Roosevelt promises he won't send American boys over to fight.

Iris James is the postmistress of Franklin, Massachusetts a small town at the end of Cape Cod. She firmly believes her job is to deliver and keep people's secrets, to pass along the news of love and sorrow that letters carry. Faithfully she stamps and sends the letters between people such as the newlyweds Emma and Will Fitch, who has gone to London to help out during the Blitz. But one day she slips a letter into her pocket, and leaves it there.

Meanwhile, seemingly fearless radio gal, Frankie Bard is reporting the Blitz from London, her dispatches crinkling across the Atlantic, imploring listeners to pay attention. Then in the last desperate days of the summer of 1941, she rides the trains out of Germany, reporting on what is happening to the refugees there.

Alternating between an America on the eve of entering into World War II, still safe and snug in its inability to grasp the danger at hand, an a Europe being torn apart by war, the two stories collide in a letter, bringing the war finally home to Franklin.

My Thoughts: In The Postmistress, Sarah Blake admirably and accurately portrays the apathy, disinterest and misunderstandings of America about World War II in the early 1940s. The story begins in fictitious Franklin, MA on the edge of the Cape. Franklin serves as a microcosm of small-town America. For example, life revolves around the local post office. Mail delivery and the most up-to-date news, what's occurring in Europe and the rise of Hitler, draws the towns-people there. Already watered down, radio and news reports are frequently met with some combination of scorn, disbelief or misunderstanding. Even reports that provoke shock or fear are quickly forgotten or dismissed with a turn of the radio knob. Many believe that America won't join the war, let alone have it come to our shores. Those who profess a belief that we will fight are primarily young men who want to fight. They believe war is glamorous and fun and that there's a certain romance inherit in the danger.

Ms. Blake presents her story through three women and the people in their lives.
Each woman is very different but all three are completely fleshed-out and three-dimensional. They are complex, flawed, characters each with their own challenges that today's women can identify with. The author also imbues each woman with positive attributes which keeps the reader interested and rooting for each woman to have satisfactory resolutions to their conflicts.

Emma Fitch is the newlywed bride of Will Fitch, the town doctor. She is introspective, reserved and fragile because her parents died when she was little. Although sympathetic, feeling so alone in the world has made her defensive and selfish. Though understandable, sometimes these traits make her unpleasant. She's never felt like she belonged anywhere or with anyone until she met Will. In fact, everyday she is surprised Will married her

Life in Franklin contrasts substantially with the Blitz in London, where they experience nightly air raids and bombings. Will listens to reports of the war in Europe on the radio, which upset Emma. She's not sure she believes them so if Will isn't around she turns the radio off. After hearing a report about a little boy who lost his mother and home, Emma voiced her concern to Will and wished they could help. But it was just a thought, the comment made in passing. For Emma, life is Will and her new home. It's daily trips to the post office while she waits for Will to come home at the end of the day after treating the sick. But then Will shocks Emma when, following the death of one of his patients, he tells her he wants to go to London to help in the war effort.

Will Fitch is the one character in The Postmistress I didn't understand. He doesn't make sense a lot of the time. He's confused and searching for a way to prove himself despite his recent marriage to a woman he loves and his job as town doctor. What the author is trying to convey through his story is unclear to me. He's a character who lives "in the moment", so he's not in denial about the war. If anything, he's the antithesis of the "typical" American at the time, literally throwing himself into the heart of battle when much of the country wanted nothing to do with the war on any level.

Franklin's post office is manned by Postmistress, Iris James. Ms. James believes in order and prompt delivery of the mail. She keeps things neat and tidy, as it's her belief that "...if there was a place on earth God worked, it was the work room of any post office of the United States of America." She is always first to hear the most recent news and is privy to the secrets and happenings of everyone in Franklin. But she isn't a gossip and she isn't one given to fantasy or outlandish theories. She is practical, straightforward and extremely principled, sometimes to a fault. She finds the radio reports of the Blitz in London and other happenings in connection with the war melodramatic: too infused with emotion, too adjectival for a news report. She scoffs and though she turns the radio off in disgust, she can not bring her self to ignore what she hears.

Another townsperson, Harry Vale, has been 'courting' Ms. James for months most expect they will marry. As much as Ms. James tries to ignore the war, Harry is obsessed to the point of spending afternoons scanning the harbor for German U-boats. Harry is convinced the war is coming to America, possibly to Franklin's shores.

The radio reports from London are, more often than not, delivered by Frankie Baird, a spirited young woman who grew up in Greenwich Village, NY, and my favorite character. She is out-spoken, opinionated, beautiful, but not very lady-like. For me, she's the heart and soul of this book and I couldn't help but laugh and cry as I tagged along with her on her adventures.

Honing her reporting skills in NYC, she moved to London to be where the action is and assist in reporting on the war. It is not long after she arrives in London that she is one of few Americans aware of the grim reality of what's going on in Europe, but not of the atrocities Hitler is beginning to wage against the Jews. The policy of reporting she's been taught : 'Get in. Get the truth. Get out.', is something she's learned to do. But like many women, Frankie gets emotionally involved in her job. This makes things all the more difficult for her, on a personal level, when she often has no idea what happens to victims of the Blitz bombings she reports on.

These interviews and reports are a result of Frankie's abilities and desire to know the truth about what's happening to the Jews. This takes her into Germany, where she quickly learns the truth about a refugee train: "and though it was obscene, absurd of her at this point in time, having seen so much, she had harbored the impossible illusion that 'refugee train' meant people who were saved" but the reality was "until they got to the end they were simply on the run.". Her experiences are life-changing and frightening. As a result, Frankie returns to America a very different woman.

Sarah Blake introduces us to Frankie in the prologue. At a dinner party, years after the war, she asks the dinner guests what they think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail. The dinner guests think it's terrible. A horror. It's the first time this idea is introduced and as a theme, Ms. Blake smartly echoes and expands on it by showing how Americans, circa 1940, receive news about the war, not to mention how the news itself is reported. The truth of what's happening in Europe is diminished and often incomplete, leaving Americans uninformed of what's really going on. Like the postmistress who believes the news in one particular letter will upset its recipient far too much at a time when it may prove harmful to her, the powers-that-be feel Americans will be upset more than necessary if they know the truth about the war. About the destruction and death the Blitz is causing. Ms. Blake also touches on how Hitler controls the news reports coming out of Europe, giving Frankie a chance to risk her job and her life trying to report the truth to Americans.

Ms. Blake has written a powerful story about an important period in the past of both America and Europe. She reminds us of the time before the United States got involved in WWII, when Americans didn't bother, or didn't want, to pay attention to the horrors of Nazi Germany. But not all Americans were apathetic. Some were willing to risk their lives to help those in danger and to inform America. Ms. Blake displays a remarkable talent for weaving a story through amazingly life-like characters who captivate us. Specifically, three women who's fates we find ourselves caring about because of Ms. Blake's deft skills as a story teller.

I received a copy of The Postmistress through Crazy Book Tours


  1. What a wonderful and thorough book review. I have been wanting to read this book for the last year. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it!

  2. Wow, I can tell how much you loved this book! I read it for my book club and my initial reaction was that I loved it. For some odd reason, I didn't like it as much after we discussed it.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed The Postmistress! I wasn't completely satisfied with it, but I wonder if that was partly because I read it right on the heels of The Help, which I loved. The structure of the two books struck me as similar, but I liked The Help better. I always feel bad comparing books, but it's so hard not to sometimes!

    I do agree the women were very real and complicated!

  4. Great review Amy. I have this on my TBR list.

  5. Ooh...Adding this to my TBR. :) Oh, and I like the cover very much.

  6. I still have this one in my stacks to read and I've been anxious to for ages. I'm glad you liked it.

  7. Awesome review! Not many people put this much time into their reviews, but this one is really great. It also seems like the book left an impression on you. After reading your review, I am definitely moving this to the top of my to-read list. Plus, love the name of your blog House of Seven Tails (instead of seven gables)! Very clever!

  8. Thanks for the detailed review. I've seen mixed thoughts about this book, but I do want to read it. I hope it's okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations.

  9. I liked this one as well Amy, but found some of the inacurravies of PLACE annoying, even though it was fiction. Great review

  10. So glad you enjoyed the book. This one has been on my TBR list for awhile and I hope to read it sometime in 2011. I just need more hours in each day so I have time to read all of the books on my list!

  11. I listened to this and it was an excellent audiobook. I loved how well developed the characters were and how the author really made me care about them.

    Great review!

  12. A lot of people seemed to only think this one was so-so but I'm with you--I liked it a lot. I wasn't wild about the ending, but I liked the characters.