Sunday, April 21, 2013

Books: The Postmistress

The Postmistress
By Sarah Blake
Copyright 2010
369 pages

Pay attention. That was the message secreted in The Postmistress. While the book was about three women at the edge of America's involvement in World War II, it was also a message for today. Be alert, see what is happening in the world around you. For God's sake, pay attention.

Frankie Bard is a journalist who broadcasts with Ed Murrow from London in 1941, as the city is being blitzed nearly nightly. Emma Fitch is the new wife of the town's doctor in a sleepy Cape Cod town. Iris James is the town's postmaster.

It seems unlikely that Frankie Bard would have cause to meet the other two women, but that meeting is the point of the novel. Most of the story leads up to their inevitable conversation in Emma's living room.

The story on its surface hinges on the supposition that Iris James did not do her job and deliver a particular letter. However, the journalist is unable to do her job, too, and perhaps even the doctor's wife fails unintentionally in her new role as caregiver to the caregiver. What is it like to be human?

Here is the book blurb for this novel:

In 1940, Iris James is the postmistress in coastal Franklin, Massachusetts. Iris knows more about the townspeople than she will ever say, and believes her job is to deliver secrets. Yet one day she does the unthinkable: slips a letter into her pocket, reads it, and doesn't deliver it.

Meanwhile, Frankie Bard broadcasts from overseas with Edward R. Murrow. Her dispatches beg listeners to pay heed as the Nazis bomb London nightly. Most of the townspeople of Franklin think the war can't touch them. But both Iris and Frankie know better...

The Postmistress is a tale of two worlds-one shattered by violence, the other willfully naive-and of two women whose job is to deliver the news, yet who find themselves unable to do so. Through their eyes, and the eyes of everyday people caught in history's tide, it examines how stories are told, and how the fact of war is borne even through everyday life.

I found the book to be very cerebral, not emotional. I like to read the reviews of various books and I was struck by the fact that the reviews on for this particular novel were all over the place. I can't recall ever seeing a book receive over 330 reviews and have them be nearly even for every number, one through five.

The reviews that gave the book a "1" degraded it for its lack of emotional involvement with the character. The reviews that gave it a "5" called it a wonderful blend of literary fiction and women's fiction.

I liked it because I could tell it was well researched. I bonded with Frankie Bard right away, being a journalist myself, but in a cerebral, "ah ha, yes I understand why you would do that," sort of way. Having been a reporter who chases story - and one who has, on occasion, left them sitting solidly in my notebook, never to see the light of day - I understood the need to speak the truth and yet run from it, too. And I never dealt with war zones like Frankie Bard did.

I thought author Sarah Blake did a good job of capturing these women, the journalist and the postmaster. Her failure, I suspect, was not in better detailing the emotional state of the doctor's wife, and in the ending. I have read worse endings - this one just made me sigh and go, oh well, I'm not sure what else she could have done to wrap this up. But it did seem like an awkward finale.

So I would give the book a 4, because of the research and the two characters I most enjoyed getting to know.

Plus I loved the idea of a female broadcast journalist in 1941. How could I not?

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