Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Postmistress

Title: The Postmistress
Author: Sarah Blake
Publisher: Berkley Trade
ISBN: 0425238695
Pages: 384

Over a year ago, NPR's All Things Considered had an interesting feature on Sarah Blake's novel, The Postmistress.  It sounded like an interesting historical fiction book - an intertwining of three women's lives through the mail and radio - the intrusion of modern communication on every day lives.   From the NPR story, I was interested in learning more about Frankie, a female American reporter living on the bombings of London and learning how to be a war correspondent from Edward R. Murrow, one of the few "real" people in this novel.  After recommending it to my mother-in-law, who bought it at a flea market and gave it to me after she finished it, I settled in for what I expected to be a gripping read.  The intertwining of stories was interesting, but the only character I really cared about was Frankie.  However, the chapters alternated between telling the story of Frankie; Iris an uptight, single, emancipated postmaster (mistress in England); and Emma a timid, un-emancipated new wife of a small town doctor. 

The story begins with a modern time Frankie titillating a cocktail party with the story of an undelivered letter. What would be the fate? Not knowing what the letter entailed.  Then the story dissolves back to WWII.  Both Emma and Iris hear Frankie's broadcasts from London.  With Murrow's tutelage, Frankie finds the voices of the streets to help the world hear and feel the war - especially a hesitant America that doesn't want to involve itself in the war "over there".  Frankie brings the names and lives of Londoners trying to survive the constant shelling, waiting, hiding and dying.  Iris, the postmistress of the small coastal town of Franklin, MA, is determined to keep order in the town through her meticulous handling of the mail.  However, the feeling that "something is coming" fills everyone.  Doctor Fitch gets his new wife Emma, an early orphan of the flu pandemic of WWI, and begins to settle into a blissful family life.  However, Frankie's constant stories of the war unsettle Dr. Fitch and his wife, and when a patient dies under his supervision, Dr. Fitch looks for redemption by volunteering as a doctor in London, leaving a pregnant Emma behind.  Like Penelope waiting for Odysseus, Emma writes and waits for him to come home.  Iris becomes involved with a local man who is convinced that the Germans will arrive in U-Boats to invade America.  She does not want her orderly life upset, so she tends to ignore both him and the reports from Europe about the severity of the war.

Frankie is in the thick of it, as she takes shelter with the rest of London underground during the bombs, but find the reality of war is told in the daily things - the suddenly missing traffic cop, the apartment building that is half blown ahead while the other half is in perfect order.  She meets Dr. Fitch one night in the shelter, where they each poke at the other's emotional soft spots.  When Dr. Fitch leaves the shelter, he is hit and killed by a taxi cab.  Frankie takes his last letter to Emma, intending to mail it, but without ID, his body is not identified and no notice is given to Emma about his death.  Her reporter flatmate is concerned with the plight of the Jewish refuges across Europe, and when she is killed, Frankie takes up the cause.  Murrow sends her into the heart of Europe to ride the trains and record the voices of the travelers(which the author admits is historically inaccurate).  What Frankie finds is chaos, death and displacement with very little hope.  She returns with several recordings of people's hopes and fears, but doesn't know what to do with them.  Murrow sends her back to the States to recuperate.

Still having the last letter in her possession, Frankie decides to give it, in person, to Emma.  However, the small town-ness envelopes her and when she realizes the Emma doesn't know her husband is dead, she refuses to hand it over.  At the same time, Iris had been hiding the initial letter from Dr. Fitch's colleagues in London saying he was missing.   When the final notice is given, Emma is surrounded by people who will take care of her, including Iris, Frankie and Otto (an Austrian Jewish man hoping for word from his wife in Europe).  That same night, Iris's lover's nightmare/prediction comes true, as a U-Boat shows up and kills him, yet with early warming, the coast is safe.

I was anticipating a really engrossing read, but I can't see this met my expectations.  The NPR pre-view sounded really good, but it felt more like getting stuck with flat soda at a movie that was so boring I noticed how much my butt went numb.  Since the character of Frankie was supposedly based on Martha Gellhorn, I think I will do some more reading about her!

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