Book Review: The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

This second novel by Sarah Blake, The Postmistress, tackles the tricky questions of love, separation, war and persecution in a mere 330 pages. Too much, you ask? It easily could have been, but Blake's crisp writing gets to the heart of the matter, bringing home the heartbreaking story of four characters during the early years of World War II.

With Roosevelt's promise to keep American soldiers out of "foreign wars" still reverberating across the US, radio anchor Frankie Bard sets off for London to report on the Blitz. Her travels take her across Europe on trains as she follows the Jews fleeing their homelands; the fact that the reader knows the significance of the chaos on the trains while Frankie still tries to sort out its meaning only makes it more impressive. She captures her own voice, and the voice of hundreds of others, on her tape recorder, playing these stories back to America, bringing home the terrors and horrors of the Blitz and the impossible beginnings of the Holocaust.

These voices reverberate through the town of Franklin, Massachusetts, the farthest town on Cape Cod. The stories of the postmistress, Iris, the doctor, Will, and his wife, Emma, all carefully overlap with Frankie's, and the four become tied together by happenings as fine as a string when Will leaves for London to help the injured of the city. Iris relays daily letters between Will and Emma, and Emma and Iris continue to listen to Frankie's harsh tellings of reality in London. Frankie and Will meet in a bomb shelter, and Frankie and Iris both face the decision of what information to pass on to grieving, yet hopeful, families.

Blake's novel is historical fiction at its finest: it transports the reader flawlessly back into the year 1940, and simultaneously drives home the terrific human toll of the Blitz and the chaos and lack of understanding of the persecution of the Jews in Europe. This is World War II history, albeit fictionalized, on a very personal level, and it is the little stories buried with the larger plots of The Postmistress that make the story the masterpiece that it is.

The little boy in London who ran home after a night of heavy bombing only to find that his home - and his mother and grandmother - have simply ceased to exist in favor of a crater. The widow in Cape Cod recognizing her late husband's childhood overalls on a fisherman's son. A German immigrant staring East over the Atlantic, as though his missing wife would walk right off the water into his waiting arms.

The bottom line: The Postmistress is far from uplifting, but in addition to being an excellent story, and a well-written one at that, it is one that puts the reader in touch with an important, and often overlooked, aspect of history. There is more to war than battle orders and armored vehicles, and Blake's story ranks among the highest in telling the human side of World War II. That being said, the novel, and Blake's ideas, are fresh and lucid, not bogged down in repetitions or emotions of past accounts. Highly recommended.

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