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The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake

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The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
© Putnam
Putnam Books, 2010

What would you do if faced with a dilemma that is both moral and legal? And, your chance of being found out is absolutely zero? And, one could argue, doing the "right" thing will injure no one more than already hurt? Add another layer to indicate that you are, indeed, legally obligated to pass that information along?

We live in an age of war on many fronts. The war in Afghanistan is about to become our most enduring conflict; Iraq is not far behind. Can we imagine what it is like to be over there while we are secure at home, trying to decide which new toy - television, car, stereo - to buy?

In this world of instantaneous communication, we can see these wars in real time. The injury or loss of a loved one can come to us within hours of the event. But, what about those times when this was not possible? Say, World War II, when letters and the occasional telegram might take days or weeks to arrive. What was it like when the radio industry was inventing wartime reporting? Imagine a time - 1940-41 - when communication was slow and cumbersome and news often took weeks to arrive.

These are the central questions facing two of the protagonists in Sarah Blake's gripping new novel, The Postmistress. We live in a world all atwitter with instant communication that often forces us to face up as reality invades our space, linking us in to whatever is happening, whether of consequence or not.
Frances (Frankie) Bard is the narrator who writes, "What I knew at the time is pieced together with the parts I couldn't have known, but imagine to be true." Frankie is a composite of the real women who worked for Edward R. Murrow in London during the Blitz. Hers is a voice of reason and her "reports" from the front so viscerally real, so compelling they will awaken the reader to the horrors of war and bring tears to your eyes. She tells the small, individual stories of real people, stories that bring life to the death and destruction visited upon London and upon the Jews in Europe, an ethnic group that was denied admission to the United States prior to the war - a time when thousands could have been saved.

Iris James is the Postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts, on the tip of Cape Cod. She is a middle-aged woman who has fallen in love and goes into Boston to get a certificate from a doctor that she is "intact." She believes in the rules of the post office, refusing to cut down the flagpole even though her lover believes that it is a beacon to German U-boats that might appear off the coast. Iris has been given a letter from Doctor Will Fitch who has gone to London after, in his mind, botching the birth of a child. The letter is to be delivered only in the event of his death. Will she deliver it or violate her oath as a postal employee?
Emma Fitch, his wife, is not prepared for a life alone in such an isolated place. She and Will exchange letters daily for months until his letters suddenly stop coming. The reader knows what has happened; it is inevitable as he seems doomed soon after we meet him.

The various plot lines are brought together as Iris and Emma listen to Frankie's reports from London. Murrow's rules of reporting - What is happening? How does it affect Americans? What does the Common Man say? - are the sub-text here. Frankie's reports touch a chord in the other two women who listen. When she redefines a hero away from the bellicose Ulysses to the patient Penelope, we understand the traditional role of women in war in a different way, women who wait courageously at home and continue life. As Frankie says, "It gets you thinking about all the parts in a story we never see…the parts around the edges."

The dramatic tension centers on what Frankie knows and Iris and Emma do not, and when they will learn. Frankie also has the last letter Will wrote to Emma, and she comes to Franklin with the intention delivering it. Will she, and will Iris share the letter she has? This is a central theme in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" in which Mother refuses to accept that her elder son has crashed in the Pacific war. Can one keep another one from hurt? Is it better to live in a world of anticipation or know the truth?
Within the context of this superb novel, life is a series of accidents. The mythological Theseus forgets and sails home with black sails and his father kills himself in grief. One looks left when he should have looked right and a taxi ends a life. A child turns down the wrong street and cannot reach a bomb shelter in time. Violence and death can be amazingly random.

Contrasts are sharply and exquisitely drawn. Frankie gets a letter from her mother in which she writes about walking to the library at home while Frankie's roommate in London is writing about Hitler's proposal to put Jews on a reservation, an idea modeled on the American government's experience with Indians. Or, Frankie reports on the death of the boy Billy's mother, killed by a bomb, while Emma listens at home and her husband goes out to deliver the fateful baby.

The Postmistress is a many layered novel. It is a story about love won and lost, a story of those who waited at home. It is a compelling account of some events leading to American involvement in World War II. Much of the description of Frankie's reporting via radio is based on fact with a novelist's liberties.

With a Ph.D. in English and American Literature from New York University, Sarah Blake is the author of a chapbook of poems, Full Turn, and an artist book, Runaway Girls. Her first novel was the acclaimed Grange House in 2000, while The Postmistress is her second. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, the poet Joshua Weiner, and their two sons.
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