The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake.
If there was a place on earth in which God walked, it was the workroom of any post office in the United States of America. Here was the thick chaos of humanity rendered into order. Here was a box for each and every family in the town. Letters, bills, newspapers, catalogs, packages might be sent forth from anywhere in the world, shipped and steamed across water and land, withstanding winds and time, to journey ever forward toward this single, small, and well-marked destination. Here was no Babel. Here, the tangled lines of people's lives unknotted, and the separate tones of voices set down upon a page were let to breach the distance. Hand over hand the thoughts were passed. And hers was the hand at the end. - from The Postmistress, page 85 -
Frankie Bard is a young journalist at the height of her career when she finds herself in London during the Blitz, walking the streets and finding the stories which she is tasked with reporting objectively. An ocean away, in the small (fictional) town of Franklin on the tip of Cape Cod, Iris James works as the postmistress. Dedicated to her job, she believes that order and rules will keep everyone safe. Iris's only risk in life is in love as she begins to envision a future with Harry Vale who spends hours high in the tower of the town hall, searching the waters for German U-boats. Also living in Franklin is Emma, newly wedded to the town's doctor, Will. America has yet to enter the war raging in Europe and no one can imagine that they could possibly be in danger. But for each character, the war will touch their lives.
The Postmistress seesaws back and forth from Europe to America. When a routine child birthing goes horribly wrong, Will decides to go to London, hoping to make a difference. He leaves behind Emma who walks each day to the post office to pick up Will's letters and leave her own to find their way back to him. Meanwhile Frankie reports the news from London -- news which touches the people of Franklin, and which, for many, is too much for them to hear. As the Blitz continues with bombs falling nightly on London, Frankie begs her boss to send her into France where it is rumored that Jewish people are being rounded up. When her wish is granted, the war suddenly becomes very personal to Frankie.
Surely God ought to look down and see that one part of the story had been separated from the other, and find a way, somehow, to put them side by side. How could He stand these gaps, these enormous valleys of silence? And Europe was full of people vanishing into this quiet. - from The Postmistress, page 218 -
For Iris, a woman who has always prided herself on delivering the mail faithfully, there comes a moment when a letter arrives which she chooses to keep undelivered. She decides instead, to keep watch, to take care, to safeguard another from harm.
The Postmistress is historical fiction, but it is so much more. This is not your typical war story -- instead it tells the individual stories which slide around the edges of the war.
Those tiny red lights in the dark going forward and moving away, those single Lucky Strikes, that's what it was to be human. We lived and died, all of us -- lucky strikes. Single lights and voices in the dark. - from The Postmistress, page 165 -
I found myself mesmerized by this novel which examines the very human need to shield ourselves and those we love from horror. While America sat isolated across an ocean, tens of thousands of people were being rounded up, murdered, and imprisoned -- and yet that story was one which went largely unreported in the early years of WWII. When Frankie Bard decides to capture the voices of the Jews riding the trains through Europe, she is stunned by their stories. She is overwhelmed that for many of these people, she will never know what happens. The weight of this knowledge silences her -- and she becomes a journalist who can no longer tell the story and deliver the news.
Some stories don't get told. Some stories you hold on to. To stand and watch and hold it in your arms was not cowardice. To look straight at the beast and feel its breath on your flanks and not to turn -- one could carry the world that way. - from The Postmistress, page 342 -
What I found most memorable about this book -- apart from the poignant, beautifully crafted writing -- was how the message it delivers is as current today as it was in the early 1940s. The character of Frankie keeps telling everyone "Pay attention." Life itself depends on this for one of the characters, but in the larger picture what Frankie is saying is to take notice, learn from our mistakes, sit up and be aware, don't look the other way.
Who among us does not wish to shut off the nightly news when it gets a little too raw or violent? Don't we sometimes want to deny others' suffering lest it make us feel that we must do something instead of nothing? Throughout history wars have been fought, human rights have been disregarded, and the suffering of others has been buried beneath political messages. What Blake so aptly does in her novel is put a human face to the horror of war and to remind us that looking away has consequences.
The Postmistress has been getting rave reviews everywhere -- and they are well deserved. Blake's writing is sensitive, observant, and filled with the simple truths of what makes us human. I loved this book. I loved its tempo, its characters, and its message. I found nothing between its pages to criticize. Readers of historical fiction as well as literary fiction will be swept away by The Postmistress.
Five stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".