Star for Mrs. Blake (Smith)

A Star for Mrs. Blake 
April Smith, 2014
Knopf Doubleday
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307958846



Summary
The United States Congress in 1929 passed legislation to fund travel for mothers of the fallen soldiers of World War I to visit their sons’ graves in France. Over the next three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made the trip. In this emotionally charged, brilliantly realized novel, April Smith breathes life into a unique moment in American history, imagining the experience of five of these women.

They are strangers at the start, but their lives will become inextricably intertwined, altered in indelible ways. These very different Gold Star Mothers travel to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery to say final good-byes to their sons and come together along the way to face the unexpected: a death, a scandal, and a secret revealed. 

None of these pilgrims will be as affected as Cora Blake, who has lived almost her entire life in a small fishing village off the coast of Maine, caring for her late sister’s three daughters, hoping to fill the void left by the death of her son, Sammy, who was killed on a scouting mission during the final days of the war. Cora believes she is managing as well as can be expected in the midst of the Depression, but nothing has prepared her for what lies ahead on this unpredictable journey, including an extraordinary encounter with an expatriate American journalist, Griffin Reed, who was wounded in the trenches and hides behind a metal mask, one of hundreds of “tin noses” who became symbols of the war.  

With expert storytelling, memorable characters, and beautiful prose, April Smith gives us a timeless story, by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, set against a footnote of history—little known, yet unforgettable. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—1950
Raised—New York, New York, USA
Education—B.S. Boston University; M.F.A., Standord University
Currently—lives in Santa Monica, California


April Smith is the author of the successful novels featuring FBI Special Agent Ana Grey as the central character. She is also an Emmy-nominated television writer and producer. In her research for A Star for Mrs. Blake (2014), she traveled to Maine, New York City, Paris, Verdun, and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Her home base is Santa Monica, California, where she lives with her husband.

A 1967 graduate of The Bronx High School of Science, Smith earned a BS in English from Boston University and a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Stanford University.
Television producer and writer.

Smith worked on several hit television series from the late 1970s through 2000 as producer, writer, and executive story editor, including Lou Grant, Cagney and Lacey, and Chicago Hope. She also adapted stories by Stephen King for the TNT series Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

She wrote teleplays for several made-for-TV movies, including the critically acclaimed 1998 remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the 1999 adaptation of the Anna Quindlen novel Black and Blue. She was nominated for an Emmy Award for her screenplay for Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter (1984).

In 2011 Smith penned the adaptation of her own novel Good Morning, Killer, for the TNT Mystery Movie Night series.

Smith's work has been nominated for three Emmys and two Writer's Guild awards.

Smith wrote four novels with FBI Special Agent Ana Grey as the central character: North of Montana (1994), Good Morning, Killer (2003), Judas Horse (2008), and White Shotgun (2011). She also is the author of Be the One (2000), and two novels based on the TV series James at 15. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 3/20/2014.)



Book Reviews
A first rate novel that is well worth reading.... Smith has the unique ability to take a long forgotten story and craft it into a page turner.... She’s found an important but forgotten postscript in America’s past and has written a compelling historical novel that confronts racism, class and economic differences as well as government bureaucracy. Smith conveys all of these topics through story and characters rather than a soapbox, and her subtle approach has far more impact than the histrionics of any television or radio pundit.
Huffington Post


A moving novel [that] gives readers a detailed and colorful description of life during the interim between the War to End All Wars and the next world war that quickly followed. . . This is not simply a story of grieving mothers but a story of America—rich in the lives of each of the characters who raise small boys to become part of the dream but instead bury them in a faraway land.... The questions are posed: How do we achieve peace? What are the costs of war? Can freedom and patriotism co-exist in America? And, for us in this century, how are our lives richer for the sacrifices of those who served before us?
Lorinda Hayes - Pittsburgh Post


Smith writes with great depth of detail and of emotion, giving voice to these Gold Star Mothers who traveled from America to their sons’ graves in France.
Historical Novel Society


[A] touching story, set in the 1930s, of Gold Star Mothers—the mothers of fallen U.S. service members—visiting their sons’ graves in France.... Smith captures the mothers’ interactions in beautiful detail and delves into the government’s not-entirely-altruistic reasons for sponsoring the trip. Several plot threads, however, are unresolved, leaving the reader wanting more at the end of this captivating read.
Publishers Weekly


What initially feels like a straightforward and heartwarming road trip novel becomes more complicated as the women draw nearer to their destination and squabbles over class and personality differences give way to increasing criticism of the government and military bureaucracy. Though some later plot developments are a bit far-fetched, Smith...artfully maintains a generally warm tone while also allowing her characters to ask hard questions about the war and its consequences.
Library Journal


(Starred review.) [A] heartfelt glimpse into a little-known episode in U.S. history, the journey taken by mothers of U.S. soldiers fallen in WWI to visit their sons’ graves in Europe. Smith focuses on five mothers whose sons were buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Their unofficial leader is Cora Blake, a single mother from Maine.... Smith’s foray into historical fiction is captivating and enlightening. —Deborah Donovan
Booklist


During the early 1930s, the U.S. government arranged for grieving "Gold Star Mothers" to visit the French burial sites of their sons killed during World War I.... While the line-by-line writing is engaging, this take on historic events is made shallow by broad brush strokes and lots of heartstring pulling.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The Gold Star Mother’s group was founded after World War I. Why was President Herbert Hoover so eager to pass legislation to fund these pilgrimages? Was there more to it than wanting to honor the fallen soldiers and their mothers.

2. Consider the Gold Star Mothers in Party A featured in April Smith’s book. How would you characterize their relationship with one another? How are the women different? How are they similar? What tensions are evident between them and what is at the root of these problems?

3. The parents of each soldier had the choice of whether to inter their son’s remains in America or in France. What was behind Cora Blake’s ultimate decision to have her son interred in France? Do you think she was at peace with that decision?

4. What cultural issues does the mix-up of Wilhelmina Russell and Selma Russell expose? There is documentation that some “Negro mothers” would not go on the trip when they found out they wouldn’t be treated as equals to the “white mothers.” Do you agree with these mothers’ decisions not to go?

5. What does Smith mean when she writes of war and “the democracy of death” (page 22)? What examples are found in the book?

6. How are the mothers treated in America? How are they received in France? What does this seem to indicate about international opinions of America’s role in the war?

7. While much of the focus of the story is on the physical and emotional journey of each of the Gold Star Mothers, what kind of journeys do Lieutenant Thomas Hammond and Nurse Lily undertake? How do they change from the start of the pilgrimage to its conclusion? What causes these changes?

8. The book features several expatriate characters. Does Smith indicate why these Americans are living in France? What kinds of occupations do they have? What do they share in common? What do these characters suggest about postwar living in Europe? Who are some real-life expatriates and how do they compare with Smith’s expatriates?

9. The tension between Clancy Hayes and Griffin Reed helps to illuminate issues of ethics, propaganda, and the role of the press in determining how war is presented. How does each journalist approach the task of writing about war and its effects? Why does Reed have such a problem with Hayes? How is Reed’s version of the story of the Gold Star Mothers different than Hayes’s version? What is the overall effect of the article Reed writes? How is it received? Why is this important?

10. There are different ideas about war expressed by the book’s characters: the mothers, the journalists, Nurse Lily, and Lieutenant Hammond. What are those ideas and how do they compare? How does General Perkins’s point of view affect our understanding of the issues at hand? Who do you sympathize with the most?

11. American expatriate journalist Griffin Reed wears a mask because of his severe disfigurement, but this mask may also be interpreted as a symbol of secrets, the inner self, and the emotional masks we all wear. What secrets do each of the characters keep? Is one more surprising than another? Why is Cora’s telling of her story to Reed so important? Does he keep her secret? How do the characters react to the revelation or discovery of each other’s secrets?

12. What part does legacy play in the book? Cora says that her family’s military involvement dates back to the time of the Revolutionary War. Perkins is from an army family, as is Lieutenant Hammond. How do tradition and the will to break from tradition feature as themes of the book? Consider Minnie Seibert’s reaction to the young woman on the bus. Why is Minnie so disgruntled by the young woman’s initial response to her?

13. Each of the female characters is confronted with her own personal choices. What do their situations tell us collectively about the role of women during this time? Do the women change throughout the story, or do they continue to adhere to societal norms and roles?

14. Evaluate the motif of pilgrimage in the book. How is a pilgrimage different from a trip? How does this categorization tie the book in with a greater thread in American history? What does this tell us about common experience? What common plights and challenges do all pilgrims face and how do they surmount these?

15. Discuss the treatment of faith in the book. What examples of faith are found throughout? Besides religious faith, what other kinds of faith are depicted? Which characters experience a loss of their faith or a conflict of faith? Do they ever regain their faith? If so, how? At the conclusion of the book, what do the characters seem to find faith in?

16. Many of the characters exhibit a strong sense of duty at one time or another. Does this change throughout the story? Is duty to something always external? Or are there any examples in the story of duty to one’s self?

17. Griffin Reed says that Cora worries over “what a war mother is really supposed to do” (274). Is this question answered by the end of the book? How does Smith’s story change or confirm your own ideas about duty and sacrifice?

18. A Star for Mrs. Blake is anchored in a footnote of history. The book is inspired by a diary of a real-life American colonel and Gold Star Mother liaison officer, but the story is from the author’s imagination. Discuss the role of truth and accuracy in historical fiction. What other books can this one be likened to? What do these books indicate about war and its effects and the way that we view them? What can a reader take away from reading about events in a novel rather than in a history book?

19. Nelson DeMille, author of Word of Honor, said, “Everyone who has served or is serving in the military, and also their families and friends, should read this book.” Why do you think he suggests this and do you agree?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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