Friday, June 11, 2010

War Correspondence

What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail? That question is posed on the first page of Sarah Blake's The Postmistress. Uh oh – was this book going to be too melodramatic for me? I wasn't encouraged when the next chapter started with a scene in which Iris James, fortysomething postmistress of the tiny Cape Cod town of Franklin, asks her doctor to write a document affirming that she is 'intact', which she plans to present to her suitor. After reading that, did I really care whether Iris found true love? But this book is about much more than lovelorn spinsters and small town drama.

The story begins in the fall of 1940, when Europe is already at war. American radio reporter Frankie Bard is in London working for Edward R. Murrow, reporting on the Blitz. Concerned that Americans do not understand the stakes, she takes a portable recorder to Europe to interview Jewish refugees as they travel by train trying desperately to emigrate before the borders close. Blake writes movingly about Frankie's growing realization of the fragility of life and of the fateful way in which innocent mistakes can have tragic consequences.

Eventually the paths of Frankie and Iris across, along with the third main character, Emma Finch, the pregnant wife of an American doctor who, guilty about a tragic medical event, has left Franklin to go to London to help treat Blitz victims. Frankie's chance encounter with him in a London bomb shelter provides the thread that will eventually link her to the small town. And yes, there are in fact letters that may or may not be delivered. But this is far less melodramatic than it seems. The poignancy is not in the letters themselves, but in the difficult decision the characters must make about when to intervene.

Blake has done her research, and this book paints a vivid picture of a time when Americans often sought to distance themselves from the chaos and tragedy of the war. 

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