Updated: Oct 23, 2018
I am drawn to books that connect with what is happening in the world today. The Postmistress, set in 1940-41 is just that read. But how does a WW2 novel help us understand 2017?
The premise begins with war-time reporter Frankie Bard asking, “What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?” The response? “Don’t tell me anymore, I’m hooked already.” And so are we.
It helps that Sarah Blake’s writing is exquisite. Sometimes I’m drawn into a story but skim to the finish, consumed by the plot not the writing. Both her plot and writing are intriguing.
“Years after, she would remember the warmth of his hand on hers and the last of the sun on her cheeks, and she would remember that moment, in the silence before someone broke it, the single moment of highest summer, brimful, with no room for more, and not time yet for the tipping, the pouring out and away.” Though the writing can be beautiful, for conservative readers, you will find sexual content and swearing.
The Postmistress title may seem obvious. But is it Frankie Bard who delivers the news from abroad, or Iris James the postmistress of Franklin, Massachusetts? And what are the repercussions when the truth is not delivered?
From bombed out London, and from trains all over Europe, Frankie Bard relates the news to Americans seemingly unaffected by the atrocities of war. She escapes with the recorded interviews of refugees fleeing Nazi regime; but who will listen to them? Meanwhile, on the Eastern seaboard, Harry Vale watches for the inevitable U-boats he knows will reach the mainland, while courting the meticulous Postmistress, Iris James.
Emma Fitch of Franklin, Mass., listens to the broadcasts from Europe, completely drawn into Frankie Bard’s story line, trying to find signs and meaning. But when her husband, the town doctor, loses a patient, he leaves for war-torn London to make his life count and inevitably meets Frankie. Will and Emma Fitch, Frankie Bard, Iris James, and Harry Vale’s lives connect as they all try to tell their story, or hide their stories. What effect do they have on one another?
In the London bomb shelter, Will asks Frankie, “What happens to a story around its edges? What happens after the part you gave us?” She explains that the only way to get through it is to watch, listen, tell the story, pass it along. Keep moving and keep telling.
But Bard becomes unable to do that. She can no longer bear the grief she’s seen, tell the story, and leave.
At the end of the novel she comes to understand, “A story like a snapshot is caught, held for a moment, then delivered. But the people in them go on and on. And what happens next? What happens?” Bard dares ask that question of audiences today. Bard cautions, “People would just as soon hear a lie as the truth,” and demands: Pay Attention!
And In fact, Author Sarah Blake writes in her Story behind the Story that The Postmistress is "about the lies we tell others to protect them, and about the lies we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge what we can’t bear: that we are alive, for instance, and eating lunch, while bombs are falling, and refugees are crammed into camps, and the news comes toward us every hour of the day. And what, in the end, do we do?”
Indeed, whether 1941 or 2017, what in the end, do we do?