The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

My book club chose to read The Postmistress by Sarah Blake for our June meeting. The timing was perfect when my grandma gave me a copy of the book in March along with her high praise.

Sarah Blake was a new author to me, so I decided to do a little research. Now, when you google “Sarah Blake,” the first thing that comes up is a Wikipedia article about Sarah Blake the “pornographic actress” (isn’t that a nice way to phrase that?). Too scared to even click on that link, I opted for the Goodreads Sarah Blake page instead–the one that says (Author of The Postmistress). From there, I found her website, although it didn’t seem to be working.

According to Goodreads:

Sarah taught high school and college English for many years in Colorado and New York. She has taught fiction workshops at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, MA, The Writer’s Center, in Bethesda MD, The University of Maryland, and The George Washington University. She lives in Washington DC with her husband, the poet Joshua Weiner, and their two sons.

And according to an author interview I found on a new-to-me blog called Hist-Fic Chick:

SARAH BLAKE is the New York Times bestselling author of The Postmistress, as well as a chapbook of poems, Full Turn, an artist book, Runaway Girls—in collaboration with the artist Robin Kahn—and Grange House, which was named a “New and Noteworthy” paperback in 2001 by the New York Times. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Good Housekeeping, US News and World Reports, and The Chicago Tribune. She lives in Washington DC with her husband, the poet Joshua Weiner, and their two sons.

The Postmistress follows the stories of two women living in Massachusetts in 1940: one, the town’s postmistress, Iris James, and the other, Emma Trask, the young new doctor’s wife. Meanwhile, we meet Frankie Bard, a reporter broadcasting from overseas, attempting to bring the stories of Nazi victims home to Americans.

When Dr. Trask feels called to offer his assistance overseas, he and Frankie meet and form an immediate connection. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Frankie becomes involved in the Trasks’ lives, and seeks Emma out upon returning to the States.

A parallel is drawn between Iris and Frankie. Both women have jobs that require them to deliver news–both good and bad–and both encounter difficulty doing so.

I appreciated the reporting Frankie did from London. As a non-history buff, I learn best through what I read, and I felt like Frankie’s reporting shed light on the situation in London at that time.

One day someone you saw every day was there and the next he was not. This was the only way Frankie had found to report the Blitz. The small policeman on the corner, the grocer with a bad eye, the people you walked to work with, in the shops, on the bus: the people you didn’t know but who walked the same route as you, who wove the anonymous fabric of our life. Buildings, gardens, the roofline, one could describe their absence. But for the disappearance of man, or a little boy, or the woman who used to wait for the bus at the same time as she did, Frankie had found few words: Once they were here. And I saw them (p. 123).

Frankie spend a lot of time riding trains and talking to refugees trying to escape the Nazi regime. My criticism of the book is that I felt like she never actually went anywhere with the stories she was hearing. She had the opportunity to share some powerful stuff… and I felt like Blake left us hanging there. Although, when my mom and I were discussing this point of the story, we thought that might have been a conscious decision on Blake’s part. Blake might have been trying to portray the fact that Americans were in the dark about just what was happening in Europe, and nobody did shed light on the situation–at least, not in time.

However, I think her reports are some of the best-written parts of the novel:

This is how a war knocks down the regular, steady life we set up against the wolf at the door. Because the wolf is not hunger, it is accident–the horrid, fatal mistake of turning left to go to the nearer tube station, rather than right to take the long way around. There is the sense one gets walking around London at night, of a God grown sleepy, tired of holding the whole vast world in His gaze, tired of making sense–so that shards of glass dagger babies in their beds, boys come home to empty houses, and the woman and the man who had just lain down to sleep are crushed (p. 75).

I also related to the character of Emma. She was a young, pregnant wife living in a new town without her husband. Blake created a very relatable character (is relatable really not word?? WordPress keeps under-lining it…), and as a reader, I wanted things to work out well for her.

She felt for the first time in her life the danger of other people’s things–how they might erase her if she weren’t careful (p. 79).

Iris finds comfort from the distressing world in the order of the postal system.

One couldn’t behave as though the post office was just another building… It represented something. Order. And here at the very heart of the system, she let out her breath, carefully… 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 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 (p. 85).

Then, there was the relationship between Iris and Harry Vale, the townsman who spends his time watching the ocean for U-Boats, ready to protect his hometown. Good ol’ Harry, watching out for everyone, overseeing all the town’s happenings. What is Blake’s meaning in this character? After you’ve read the book, I’d love to discuss that with you.

The Postmistresstouches on many themes: war, love, God’s presence in war. These facets are sure to lead to a great discussion in my book club (and in any book club!).

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