Postmistress (Blake)

The Postmistress
Sarah Blake, 2010
Penguin Group USA
326 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780399156199

Filled with stunning parallels to today's world, The Postmistress is a sweeping novel about the loss of innocence of two extraordinary women-and of two countries torn apart by war.

On the eve of the United States's entrance into World War II in 1940, Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, a small town on Cape Cod, does the unthinkable: She doesn't deliver a letter.

In London, American radio gal Frankie Bard is working with Edward R. Murrow, reporting on the Blitz. One night in a bomb shelter, she meets a doctor from Cape Cod with a letter in his pocket, a letter Frankie vows to deliver when she returns from Germany and France, where she is to record the stories of war refugees desperately trying to escape.

The residents of Franklin think the war can't touch them—but as Frankie's radio broadcasts air, some know that the war is indeed coming. And when Frankie arrives at their doorstep, the two stories collide in a way no one could have foreseen.

The Postmistress is an unforgettable tale of the secrets we must bear, or bury. It is about what happens to love during war-time, when those we cherish leave. And how every story—of love or war—is about looking left when we should have been looking right. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Birth—December 10, 1960
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University; M.A., San Francisco State
   University; Ph.D., New York University
Currently—lives in Washington, DC

Born in New York City, Sarah Blake has a BA from Yale University and a PhD in English and American Literature from New York University. She is the author of a chapbook of poems, Full Turn (Pennywhistle Press, 1989); an artist book, Runaway Girls (Hand Made Press, 1997) in collaboration with the artist, Robin Kahn; and two novels. Her first novel, Grange House, (Picador, 2000) was named a "New and Noteworthy" paperback in August, 2001 by the New York Times. Her second novel, The Postmistress, was by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in February 2010. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Good Housekeeping, US News and World Reports, the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere.

Sarah taught high school and college English for many years in Colorado and New York. She has taught fiction workshops at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, MA, The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, the University of Maryland, and George Washington University. She lives in Washington, DC.

From a 2009 Barnes & Noble interview:

• In the three summers while I was in college, I tried out three different lives in my summer jobs—full immersion: intern at an Art Auction house in NYC; kitchen girl at a dude ranch in Montana; jewelry store clerk in a tiny shop on an island off the coast of Sicily. I took the immersion a little too close to heart for my mother—after the second summer, in my incarnation as a cowgirl, I announced I was thinking about quitting college, marrying the cowboy I was dating there, and becoming a rancher. How could I not? The cowboy left me love letters hidden in the horn of my saddle.

• I am a big gardener and re-arranger of furniture. The two are inextricably related, in my mind, to my writing. When I can't figure out a scene, or when I'm stumped as to why a character makes a certain choice—I go out and dig, and plot and plan and rearrange. In the winter, handily, there are similar chances to plot and plan and rearrange inside the house. When I get an idea in my head about how a room might look, I am completely obsessed with trying it out, right then and there. One night I was certain that the problem with our living room was the rug and that the answer to the problem lay upstairs on the third floor in my son's bedroom. Never mind that it was eleven o'clock and he was fast asleep, and the bed he slept in lay squarely on top of the rug. I jimmied and lifted and snatched the rug out from under the sleeping child, hauled it down the three flights, and then lifted and lowered and hauled the furniture around down in the living room. By the time my husband came home at midnight, I had just finished rolling the rug out in the living room. We both stared at it. It was completely and totally wrong.

• I come from a big family of singers—around the campfire, in a cappella groups in school, in the back of the car—and I love to sing, love to hear singing. Similarly, I grew up listening to grown ups talking at dinner, extending dinner late into the night, all of us ranged around a big table in the house my grandparents bought in the "30s in Maine. My idea of happiness is just that: many faces, many generations, much discussion, candles and talk while the dishes shift in the sink.

• I love fog. I love rain. I love the moment right after a play ends—the second of pure silence when everyone in the theatre, actors and audience, are joined—before the clapping starts and the actors bow and we pick up our lives again.

When asked what book most influenced her life as a writer, here is her response:

There are all the books I read curled up on a couch in summer childhood—all the "Little House" books, The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, A Wrinkle in Time—that gave me worlds right there where I sat, while the hot wind of New Haven drifted over the window sill. That feeling of reading worlds, of diving down below the surface of my own life made me a reader, an irredeemable bookworm.

But it was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf that made me want to become a writer. I read her sentences—all the beauty and the longing in them—and I simply wanted to write them myself. The way her characters thought and moved, the light and sound she captured of a summer day—all this I wanted to make mine. She showed me how to capture what she calls "moments of being"—clear, resonant times in our lives of pure beauty, caught just as they vanish.

(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
A book that hits hard and pushes buttons expertly.... The real strength of The Postmistress lies in its ability to strip away readers' defenses against stories of wartime uncertainty and infuse that chaos with wrenching immediacy and terror. Ms. Blake writes powerfully about the fragility of life and about Frankie's efforts to explain how a person can be present in one instant and then in the next, gone forever.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

It is, perhaps, the middle third of The Postmistress that is most poignant and authentic and, I believe, gets at the heart of Blake's intention for this novel: the idea that Americans were not paying attention between 1933 and 1941. In this section, Frankie travels on trains across France in 1941 with Jewish refugees trying to reach Spain or Portugal or a boat west to the Americas. Frankie is using a recording technology, Blake admits in an author's note, that wouldn't have been available to her for another two years, but her interviews with the families are profoundly affecting, and the tension is riveting as each visa is checked. The stakes are high for these refugees, and here the novel soars.
Chris Bohjalian - Washington Post

Splendid novel about the power of words to change people and the world.... The Postmistress possesses the sentimental quaintness of the 2008 hit The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but its spark comes from its enduring message about the need for humanity to step up and fight anyone and anything that threatens our fragile moral code.... In 2010, The Postmistress may stand alone, as did Kathryn Stockett's The Help (also published by Amy Einhorn) in 2009, as a refreshingly honest novel about how a handful of people can help change the world.
USA Today

The Postmistress, its cover emblazoned with a glowing blurb from The Help's Kathryn Stockett, will likely be snapped up by book clubs. There's both exquisite pain and pleasure to be found in these pages, which jump from the mass devastation in Europe to the intimate heartaches of an American small town. As a war rages, and the baby in Emma's belly grows, Frankie and Iris must answer an impossible question: When and how, if at all, should life-altering news be delivered? The ending is a bit of a miss. One final tragedy seems unnecessarily cruel. But in a novel about war, perhaps that is the point. A-
Karen Valby - Entertainment Weekly

Weaving together the stories of three very different women loosely tied to each other, debut novelist Blake takes readers back and forth between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. Single, 40-year-old postmistress Iris James and young newlywed Emma Trask are both new arrivals to Franklin, Mass., on Cape Cod. While Iris and Emma go about their daily lives, they follow American reporter Frankie Bard on the radio as she delivers powerful and personal accounts from the London Blitz and elsewhere in Europe. While Trask waits for the return of her husband—a volunteer doctor stationed in England—James comes across a letter with valuable information that she chooses to hide. Blake captures two different worlds—a naïve nation in denial and, across the ocean, a continent wracked with terror—with a deft sense of character and plot, and a perfect willingness to take on.
Publishers Weekly

Frankie Bard is a young female reporter in London during the Blitz, working with the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Eric Severeid. Her broadcasts make an impression on the residents of Franklin, MA —Dr. Will Fitch and wife Emma, garage owner Harry Vale, and postmaster Iris James—who in 1940–41 don't know how or if the war will affect them. Harry is sure the Germans are about to land on their beach, while, hearing Frankie talk of an orphaned boy, Emma and Will don't feel the news goes far enough. Iris insists that "there is an order and a reason" to everything, and "every letter sent...proves it." First novelist Blake doesn't let her work fall prey to easy sentimentality; this story is harsh and desperate, as indeed is war, but her writing is incisive and lush: a house missing a piece of mortar, "as if it had been bitten"; a distracted Iris, with "sand…dribbling out of the bag of her attention." Verdict: Even readers who don't think they like historical novels will love this one and talk it up to their friends. Highly recommended for all fans of beautifully wrought fiction. —Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal
Library Journal

Three women on the eve of America's involvement in World War II consider the volatile nature of truth in the face of tragedy. Iris James is postmistress for the town of Franklin on the tip of Cape Cod. Everyone's secrets pass through her hands, but Iris, a 40-year-old virgin, reveres the ethical standards her position confers, order imposed on the chaos. New to Franklin in September 1940 is Emma, young Dr. Will Fitch's bride, an orphan who hopes that marriage and the close community will bring her the family she's missed. While residents enjoy the quiet of fall on the Cape—everyone but Harry Vale, who perches on the upper floor of Town Hall looking out to sea for U-boats—they listen to the radio broadcasts of Frankie Bard, a pioneering female American journalist covering the Blitz in London. Her report about an orphaned boy prompts Will, reeling from the recent death of a patient during childbirth, to go to London and help the wounded in penance. Frankie briefly meets Will in a bomb shelter, where he makes a disturbing confession: He can't return to his life on the Cape; the war and his usefulness during it have made him happy. Upper-crust Frankie is also exhilarated by the war, but as she and Will exit the shelter the next morning, she sees him hit and killed by a taxi. Frankie's boss, Ed Murrow, sends her to the continent to interview Jewish refugees fleeing Germany; she also witnesses executions and realizes the enormity of the task ahead. Back on the Cape, Emma, heavily pregnant, doesn't know what to make of Will's disappearance. But Iris does; she confiscated the letter informing Emma of Will's death. Then Frankie shows up, surprised that everyone thinks Will is still alive. The loose ends that plague every tale and the fractional nature of knowing are the central themes of this narrative, which plays with the idea of storytelling. Quietly effective work from first novelist Blake.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Much of The Postmistress is centered on Frankie’s radio broadcasts—either Frankie broadcasting them, or the other characters listening to them. How do you think the experience of listening to the news via radio in the 1940s differs from our experience of getting news from the television or the internet? What is the difference between hearing news and seeing pictures, or reading accounts of news? Do you think there is something that the human voice conveys that the printed word cannot?

2. “Get in. Get the story. Get out.” That is Murrow’s charge to Frankie. Does The Postmistress make you question whether it’s possible to ever really get the whole story? Or to get out?

3. When Thomas is killed, Frankie imagines his parents sitting miles away, not knowing what has happened to their son and realizes there is no way for her to tell them. Today it is rare that news can’t be delivered. In this age of news 24/7, are we better off?

4. Seek Truth. Report it. Minimize Harm. That is the journalist’s code. And it haunts Frankie during the book. Why wasn’t Frankie able to deliver the letter or tell Emma about meeting Will? For someone whose job was to deliver the news, did she fail?

5. If you were Iris, would you have delivered the letter? Why or why not? Was she wrong not to deliver it? What good, if any, grew up in the gap of time Emma didn’t know the news? What was taken from Emma in not knowing immediately what happened?

6. In the funk hole, Will says that “everything adds up”, but Frankie disagrees, saying that life is a series of “random, incomprehensible accidents”. Which philosophy do you believe? Which theory does The Postmistress make a better case for?

7. After Thomas tells his story of escape, the old woman in the train compartment says “There was God looking out for you at every turn.” Thomas disagrees. “People looked out. Not God.” He adds, “There is no God. Only us.” How does The Postmistress raise the questions of faith in wartime? How does this connect to the decisions Iris and Frankie make with regard to Emma?

8. Why do you think Maggie’s death compels Will to leave for England?

9. The novel deals with the last summer of innocence for the United States before it was drawn into WWII and before the United States was attacked. Do you see any modern-day parallels? And if so, what?

10. What are the pleasures and drawbacks of historical novels? Is there a case to be made the The Postmistress is not about the 1940’s so much as it uses the comfortable distance of that time and place in order to ask questions about war? About accident? Aren’t all novels historical? Why or why not?

11. We know that Emma was orphaned, that Will’s father had drinking problems, that Iris’s brother was killed in the First War, and that Frankie grew up in a brownstone in Washington Square. How do these characters’ backgrounds shape the decisions that they make? And if we didn’t have this information, would our opinion of the characters and their actions change?

12. Early in the novel, Frankie reflects on the fact that most people believed that “women shouldn’t be reporting the war.” Do you think that Frankie’s gender influences her reporting? How does Frankie deal with being a female in a male-dominated field? And do you think female reporters today are under closer scrutiny because of their gender?

13. Why does Otto refuse to tell the townspeople that he’s Jewish? Do you think he’s right not to do so?

14. Why is the certificate of virginity so important to Iris? What does it tell us about her character?

15. When Frankie returns to America, she doesn’t understand finds it impossible to grasp that people are calmly going about their lives while war rages in Europe. What part does complacency play in The Postmistress?

16. Discuss the significance of the Martha Gellhorn quote at the beginning of the book, “War happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say, and it seems to me I have been saying it forever.” What stance towards war, and of telling a war story does this reveal? How does it inform your reading of The Postmistress?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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