Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review - "The Postmistress" by Sarah Blake

It's 1940. The United States is doing its best to ignore events in Europe, though there are a few men who can't wait to join up and go fight. Iris James is the postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts, a tiny town on the far tip of Cape Cod. Emma Fitch is the new wife of town doctor. Both women tune their radios to hear news from "over there," and one of those voices belongs to Frankie Bard, a young American woman working in London for Edward R. Murrow. Frankie does her best to tell stories of what life is like during the Blitz, and she finds herself frustrated that she doesn't seem to be making a difference. The US is determined to stay out of war, no matter what atrocities are occurring.

Emma's husband Will has a horrific experience delivering a baby, and he decides he can be of better use helping the wounded in London. Emma waits for word from him, trusting Iris to deliver any news both good and bad. Meanwhile, Frankie goes to Berlin to try to follow the Jews as they leave Germany and attempt to get to Lisbon, where the Germans are not yet in control and where they might have a chance to get to America and other places promising freedom. She takes along a portable recorder and captures the voices and stories of her fellow travelers. She is deeply moved by the idea that those people could be alive one minute and dead the next. She enjoys broadcasting the news from Europe, but she is at a loss as to what else she can do to bring the truth of the coming Holocaust to her listeners and to make them see that they need to get involved.

The women's stories entwine in a powerful way about halfway through the book. Frankie ends up with news of Will, and though she does not know Emma she resolves to deliver that news. Will had left a letter with Iris to give to Emma in the event of his death, but Iris isn't sure she'll be able to follow through. Emma just wants to know what's going on.

The book explores the question, What if? What if a radio journalist can't stay objective? What if a postmistress can't do her job? What if people sit on the sidelines or turn a blind eye when confronted with evil? The questions don't only address how the lives of Emma, Iris, and Frankie might have been different or whether the outcome of World War II might have been different had the US gotten involved sooner, but the questions are also relevant today. What can we as individuals do in the face of poverty, war, disease, injustice, not only around the world but also in our own neighborhoods? Is simply doing our jobs enough or is there more we can and should be doing?

This book is beautifully written, interweaving the lives of the three women while also giving them their own space to develop as characters. Author Blake never uses the word "holocaust," but anyone familiar with history knows exactly what is happening and what else will happen. Emotions, reactions, small towns, and the 1940s are all drawn in such a way that you feel like you're there. If you like characters who seem real, if you like stories that are not afraid to explore big issues, or if you like history brought to life, pick up this book. But be prepared to be challenged.

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