Sarah Blake’s THE POSTMISTRESS is filled with people and images that, just like the letter at the core of the story, will continue to haunt the reader long after the book is closed.
It is the fall of 1940, and Iris James has been the postmistress of Franklin, Massachusetts, a little seaside town at the end of the Cape, for about a year. The order of running a post office appeals to her, as she sees herself as a “perfect vessel through which people’s thoughts and feelings could pass and upon which nothing snagged or got stuck.” She is 40 and well on her way to being a spinster postmistress when she sees the town mechanic (and bachelor) Harry Vale taking notice of her. Finding love at her age is a possibility she had almost given up on, but she is intrigued enough to take a quick day trip to Boston to fully prepare for the hopeful romance.
On the return trip, Iris takes note of a fellow passenger who she thinks is probably a runaway. This child-woman, lost in the thick pages of ANNA KARENINA, is unaware of the observation and is, in fact, the bride of Franklin’s doctor, Will Fitch, coming to take her place at the young physician’s side. Upon arrival, Emma’s suitcase falls open, unleashing an array of silky underthings. At this moment, Iris recognizes Emma as a fellow outsider and quickly steps in to help, thus saving her from the embarrassment of a less than perfect disembarkation. Emma recognizes the kindness as such, and a temperate friendship begins between the “old maid” and the blushing bride.
Will Fitch is a Franklin boy. His father owned the town bank, but lost his business, his townsmen’s money, a good part of his sanity and all of his dignity during the crash of ’32. Will has come home with a medical degree and every intent to banish the ghosts of his past that remind him --- and, in his mind, everyone else in town --- that his character is forever stained by the sins of his father. Not too many months into their happy, blissful, newlywed lives, Will attends to a fisherman’s wife as she births her fifth child. Something goes horribly amiss, and Will can only think that “it had always gone wrong for the Fitches.” In the sudden realization that he cannot escape his father’s shadow, he makes a rash decision to head for London, where the Blitz is underway, to be of some use. Emma sees his flight for exactly what it is --- an attempt to escape Franklin’s shame and offer himself up in a misplaced but gallant life-for-a-life bargain with his personal demons.
Woven into the thread of all these other stories and voices, heard in almost every kitchen, living room and even the post office, is the engaging, compelling voice of Frankie Bard, an American radio gal, reporting from London. She works for Edward R. Murrow at Broadcasting House, and it is her voice that comes into the homes of Franklin, reporting on the blitz that is besieging London. She attempts to put a human face on a war that has not too intimately touched American lives so far. She tells stories of the policeman who was there one day, but not the next, and the young neighbor boy she walked home with after a bombing only to discover the back ends of their apartments completely gone --- along with her friend Harriett and the boy’s mother. She is chastised when emotion creeps into her voice and strives to maintain an observer’s aloofness.
During a particularly bad night of bombing, she happens to meet Will in an underground bomb shelter. Their acquaintance is short lived, but from their meeting she takes away not only a letter intended for Emma, but also intimate knowledge of what really drew Will to London and why he probably will never return to Emma or Franklin.
Shortly thereafter, her dreams of getting into Europe and finding out the real story of Jewish displacement are answered, and off she is sent with a recording device, transit papers and a strict order to get in and get out. She manages to get some stories past the censures and barely makes it out before her papers expire. But the experience of riding the rails with refugees desperately trying to escape with their lives and other scenes, previously unimagined, that she witnesses take their toll. It is not long after that she returns to America and sets off for Franklin with Will’s letter in her pocket.
Iris has a letter in her pocket as well, but this one is from Will’s landlady. Against everything she believes as an employee of the federal government, she has read it and secreted it in her desk. Two letters. Two secrets and counting. Things known by one, unknown by another. Secrets that can change one person’s life for the good, and the next person’s for the worse. The struggle inside both Frankie and Iris, the constant measuring of pros and cons, the knowledge that some secrets if revealed can damage far greater than if they remained hidden. It is not even truly until the end that the reader can completely weigh in with an opinion on the matter.
Sarah Blake’s novel is an intelligent read, and her exhaustive research is evident, giving the book a thorough cloak of accuracy in which mood, timbre and setting are never broken. THE POSTMISTRESS should fit very nicely on the shelf of current World War II fiction.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on January 19, 2011
- Publication Date: February 9, 2010
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
- ISBN-10: 0399156194
- ISBN-13: 9780399156199