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.

Cronkite

With many now getting their news from comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the presence of a respected newsman regularly delivering nightly news may seem an outdated medium, but in his biography – Cronkite – Douglas Brinkley humanizes a legend. The size of this book can be intimidating – over two inches thick, a companion to a good Oxford dictionary, but two sixteen-page inserts of photographs might be a good place to start.

In the first 50 pages – “The Making of a Reporter,” Brinkley touches on Cronkite’s Missouri roots, high school graduation in Houston, the influence of Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas, and young Cronkite’s first love (before meeting his wife). His research delivers scripts from Cronkite’s early radio and sports reporting, foreshadowing a career as “The Most Trusted Man in America.”

The next 5 chapters document Cronkite’s life and career through World War II, the moon landing, the death of President Kennedy, the Vietnam war, and finally “Retirement Blues” at 64 years old. Brinkley conveniently prefaces each chapter with a list of its subtopics, effectively summarizing the key points. As I am reading, I find myself skipping around, looking for topics that interest me – in no particular chronological order. No matter what point in history, Brinkley manages to insert anecdotes about Cronkite that place him not only reporting but also shaping events. Cronkite’s bugging of a political convention room surprised me.

Although written in an easy to digest conversational style, Brinkley’s biography is complete and, subsequently, a long slow read. This history lesson across decades chronicles important events through the life of the newsman who had “accuracy, timeliness, and the trust of the audience.”

I’m enjoying getting to know the man behind the desk, who always looked the same, no matter what his age. As he reminded viewers daily with his signature sign-off,

“And that’s the way it is.”