Tuesday, October 14, 2014

426 (2014 #54). A Star for Mrs. Blake

by April Smith

This novel is set in 1931, a couple years after the United States passed unusual legislation (for the Depression era) to fund first-class travel by Gold Star Mothers to visit the graves of their sons who died in France in World War I.

The main (and title) character is Cora Blake, a fisheries worker and volunteer librarian in a coastal town in Maine, single mother to an only child, Sammy, who was killed in the war.  She is part of a group of five (somewhat stereotypical) Gold Star Mothers who are accompanied by a nurse and a military escort named Lieutenant Thomas Hammond, a recent West Point graduate and namesake son of a U.S. Army commander.

In an afterword, author April Smith revealed that Hammond was a real person, and many details in the story come from his diary.  Smith is good friends with actor Nicholas Hammond (who, by the way, played Friedrich, one of the Von Trapp children, in The Sound of Music movie), and he gave her the diary "in the hope that I might tell the story of his father,..[but]...the diary is barely a dozen incomplete pages," according to one interview.

Therefore, Smith had to do a lot of research - 25 years worth, according to another interview.  She spent time at the National Archives going through files about the 1930s Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages, traveling to all the locations in the book (including Paris, Verdun, and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery), and interviewing residents there who had lived through the Great Depression (including a 104-year-old librarian in Maine), as well as Gold Star Mothers in a retirement home in Southern California.

The result of all this research is a story with an excellent feel for place and time, particularly with the descriptions of the battlefields near Verdun and Meuse-Argonne.  Smith also does a noteworthy job with some touchy topics, such as discrimination against black Gold Star Mothers (who traveled separately and in less style), and governmental and military rules and regulations (and b.s.), particularly with what happens to Lily, the nurse.

I felt Cora and Thomas were well-drawn characters, but the other characters were not as well-developed.  The budding romance between Cora and American journalist Griffin Reed, a World War I vet who wears a metal mask on his battle-damaged face (I immediately picture him as looking like Richard Harrow in Boardwalk Empire) did not ring true for me - I felt the age difference would be too great.  Interestingly, Reed is living with an American  "socialite" artist who makes the masks who was loosely modeled on real mask-maker Anna Coleman Ladd.

The ending is a bit confusing, in terms of what happens to Reed, and because of a surprise he engineers (that, in my mind, does not add to the story).  Smith, best known for her mystery thrillers and for being a writer and producer TV shows like the Cagney and Lacey police drama, must have felt a need to include the secret and a (unnecessary) death.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would recommend, because of the pieces of history it illuminates.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I won this advance reader edition in a summer reading program sponsored by my local public library.  I'll hang on to the book for a while and eventually pass it on to someone else to enjoy.]

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