Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake

After reading Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I needed a page-turner in the worst way and by a stroke of good luck The Postmistress fell into my hands the day after I had finished all 754 pages of the story of Lincoln’s presidency (not including footnotes).  While The Postmistress definitely falls under the category of “chick lit”, it is a moving story that is well told and refreshingly free of the usual romantic silliness that characterizes the genre.  The basic premise of the story is that the lady postmaster in a small New England village decides not to deliver a letter.   As Postmaster, Iris James’ sworn duty is to deliver the mail no matter what it contains or whom it is for.  She knows full well what the letter in question contains and by withholding it lets one person’s story play out differently than it would have.  This novel could easily have been the victim of a trite plot line, however author Sarah Blake displayed her considerable talent as a researcher.  Ms. Blake succeeds in creating the main characters, Iris James and Frankie Bard, imagining small town America still reeling from World War I and in denial about the global threat posed by Germany under the Third Reich, and providing vivid descriptions of war-torn Europe.

The story takes place during the World War II German bombing of London, before the United States joined the fight against Adolf Hitler.  At that time, important news of the world arrived in newspapers, newsreels, and radio broadcasts.  Edward R. Murrow was the first to bring the theater of war into Americans’ homes with his descriptive, daily broadcasts from London.  Murrow and his team of reporters dodged bombs and strafing runs in order to communicate to Americans how desperate and dangerous the situation in Europe was becoming.  Murrow’s gift was his narrative style with which he calmly and unemotionally described the unspeakable horrors of war. 

While not unheard of, women news reporters were extremely rare in Murrows’s day and Ms. Blake does a good job of making Frankie Bard believable in that role.  Frankie has a certain sang froid and toughness to her character which earns her the respect of her male peers, and eventually the fictionalized Murrow hires her to compile an on-air broadcast.  Nervous at first, Frankie soon develops her own voice and becomes a regular radio reporter from London.  Meanwhile, back in America people find themselves increasingly moved by some of her stories detailing the tragedies overseas.  A visionary few Americans who listened to the radio news broadcasts recognized the ease with which a German submarine could attack the homeland. 

Iris James, the postmaster of Franklin, Massachusetts, is 40 years old and unmarried; a kind-hearted busybody who prides herself on knowing everyone’s business but keeping it to herself.  She finds herself in a romance with the town mechanic at an age when many women were grandmothers.   Harry Vale -- who has tasked himself with watching the coastline for signs of German U-Boats, to the amusement of the postmistress -- makes Iris’ acquaintance when he asks her to lower the flag pole in front of the Post Office so as not to draw the Germans’ attention.  She refuses to comply, citing a lack of authority to do so, but then relents and writes a letter to the higher authorities in Washington when she realizes that she is in love with Harry.  (Janet Maslin, of the New York Times, tried unsuccessfully to make the flag pole into a phallic metaphor, in her review of the book, which makes no sense given that Iris is a willing virgin and Harry is feeling his manliness after a long period of celibacy.)  The Postmistress is written in a straight-ahead style without symbolic references, hidden meanings, or complex literary devices, which is why it is an easy and fast read.  This is not to say it is devoid of literary references:  at one point Frankie compares herself to Cassandra, the prophetic mad woman from Troy whom no one could understand.  It is an apt comparison.

Emma Fitch, the bride of the town’s young doctor, is the third heroine of this novel.  Dr. Fitch carries some baggage into the marriage which derails him when one of his patients dies in childbirth.  Unable to cope with his guilt over the woman’s death, the doctor hurries off to London to attend to war casualties.  While there he meets Frankie Ward in a bomb shelter and, as was frequently the case, the two become quite close for a brief, but pivotal moment.  In that brief time, Frankie comes to know Will Fitch better than his wife ever will and because of that meeting, the three women – Iris, Frankie, and Emma – become inextricably linked.
The Postmistress is at its best in the scenes of war-ravaged Europe.  Ms. Blake’s uncomplicated writing style brings an immediacy to her descriptions of physical and emotional wounds suffered on a massive scale.  In the end Frankie cannot tolerate the devastation she has dispassionately shared with her American audience, and neither can many of her male counterparts.  “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” had not yet been identified, but Frankie clearly suffered from it, as did Dr. Fitch, and thousands of others whose lives were shattered by the relentless bombing raids and the atrocities visited upon the Jewish people.  Frankie witnessed humans stripped of their humanity one time too often and the protective armor which enabled her to do her job fell away, leaving her smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable than she had understood her essential self to be.

The journalist’s code of ethics, briefly, is to seek truth, report it, and minimize harm.  A good journalist tells a story, without bias and as completely as possible, including only verifiable facts.  As fear-mongering in the United States creates widespread paranoia, Murrow sends Frankie, armed with a recording device (which the author acknowledges was not available when Frankie would have been reporting from Europe) to interview people on the refugee trains so that Americans can understand the whole story of the sudden influx of German speaking immigrants.  With her collection of recordings, Frankie holds onto tiny shreds of lives, which would otherwise have disappeared, and through these voices illustrates the evil of Hitler and the Nazis.  It is the voices that prove her undoing.  That and the death of a young American man who looks in the wrong direction before crossing a London street.

What stays with me after reading this book is the sense of helplessness that pervaded Europe even though the trains continued to run between countries -- right on schedule -- whether moving people to war, to safety, or to death camps.  With entire communities collapsing into rubble all across London, there was no more normal.  As a matter of national self-preservation, trainloads of children were removed to the countryside and taken in by strangers for the duration of the war.  It is easy to imagine postmasters and postmistresses all over England wishing they could let innocent children continue to believe that their parents would be waiting at home when the war was over.

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander,all rights reserved

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