Tuesday, August 23, 2011

238 (2011 #43). The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake,
read by Orlagh Cassidy

I listened to this audiobook for my local book club's discussion this month.  I have mixed feelings about it.

The postmistress of the title (really a postmaster, even when female, according to post office regulations of the time AND the "postmistress" herself) is Iris James, a 40-year-old spinster in the fictional Cape Cod town of Franklin, Massachusetts. (In an interview, author Sarah Blake admitted that "it never occurred to her to check" to see if there was a real town of that name.  There is, and it's far from the Cape.)  The story starts in September 1940 and runs through September 1941.

The other two main characters are Emma Fitch, newly wed to Franklin's young doctor Will Fitch, who feels he is battling his father's bad reputation, and Frankie Bard, a war correspondent with CBS Radio in London during the Blitz (Edward Murrow is a minor character in this book).  Iris and Emma and Will and others in Franklin listen to Frankie's broadcasts.

The book begins awkwardly, with Iris visiting a doctor in the city to get a certificate verifying her virginity.  She has her eye set on Harry Vale, the town's mechanic, who's obsessed with the possibility of German U-boats attacking the coast.  Meanwhile, Will loses a patient in childbirth, and feels it's his fault.  Inspired by Frankie's broadcasts, he volunteers to serve as a doctor in London, leaving (unknown to them both, pregnant) Emma behind.  Before he goes, he leaves Iris a letter to be delivered to Emma in case he dies overseas.

Frankie's storyline is far more interesting.  She spends an evening with anti-aircraft gunners manning their post, another with people in the shelter, and reports on it all to the folks back home.  She certainly made the Blitz come alive for me!  But Frankie is looking for "THE story" of the war, and asks to be sent into Germany and France to travel with (nearly all Jewish) refugees as they attempt to escape German-occupied territories.

This is the most harrowing, heartbreaking part of the book.  Frankie takes a "portable disk recorder" (which, the author admits in an end note, was not readily available until 1944) and records the voices of the people she rides with - often just their names, where they are from, and where they are going.  She sees what happens to some of them, and is left wondering what happened to many others.

The ending is very sad, parts of the plot are contrived (undelivered letters and unrealistic coincidences), and character development, beyond Frankie, is weak.  But I would still recommend the book, because the prose is lovely and well written, and Blake has a deeper message about war.  Part of the message is, "pay attention."  And part of the message is, "How do you bear (in both senses of the word) the news?"  (page 326)

As Blake elaborates in this second end note (unfortunately not on the audiobook, which is otherwise perfectly voiced by actress Orlagh Cassidy, particularly well suited to Frankie), on pages 326-326,
I wanted to write a war story that did not take place on the battlefield, but showed us around the edges of a war photograph or news report into the moments just after or just before what we read or see or hear....It's about the lies we tell others to protect them, and about the lies we tell ourselves in order not to acknowledge what we can't bear: that we are alive...while bombs are falling, and refugees are crammed into camps, and the news comes toward us every hour of the day.  And what, in the end, do we do?

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.  I purchased a hardbound print copy from the Hood County Friends of the Library sale.]

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