Revisiting The Postmistress

Since it has been over three years that I read and reviewed Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress, I only remember vague remnants of the World War II story – something about undelivered mail and Edward R. Murrow?  When a group of friends recently discovered the book and  decided to discuss it, I sought out my old review – which I am reposting below.  In the same genre as that one-hit wonder The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Postmistress offers a solid tale with that underlying tug of how easy it is to be in denial.

The “LitLovers” site offers a summary and a list of discussion questions; my favorite –  “When Frankie returns to America, she… 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?”

My review of The Postmistress from March 21, 2010

Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress provocatively draws you into the questions: How much truth can you take? And what lies do you need to get through the day?

Blake lived in Washington, D.C. on 9/11 when the Pentagon was hit and all over town workers fled buildings – hearing that another plane was on its way. Phones and computers failed, and people struggled to make sense of their fear. For weeks after, the District had guardsmen on corners with guns and tanks in the streets. Everytime someone rode the Metro to work, it was with a sense of relief to have made it without blowing up. Blake notes that 9/11 inspired her writing.

But this is not a book about 9/11. This is a story about war, fear, and lies – and how people survive.

Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, a little town on the ocean near Cape Cod, is the stalwart protector of order and function who gives everyone in this small town the sense that “all is right.” Frankie Bard is the purveyor of facts – the young newscaster, working with Edward R. Murrow, broadcasting live from London during the Blitz – a young idealist who becomes entrenched in the stories of individuals. Her mantra – “…Seek truth. Report it. Minimize harm…” dissolves with bombed buildings and missing children.

Both Iris and Frankie struggle with the weight of truth and responsibility. But it is Emma, the young doctor’s wife, faithfully waiting for her husband to return from war, who brings the story and the characters together – provoking their protection and courage.

Blake sprinkles in other characters oblivious to the war, as they live through love, marriage, death, and small town gossip – far from the action. Even as they listen to Frankie’s radio broadcasts, the town forces the reader to consider how atrocities can be easily ignored when the action is not in your own backyard.

You may read the book literally for its descriptions of the personal losses of war, or for the touching period love stories, but what will haunt you is the search for how people carry on when a world is full of terror and bigotry.