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.

Grange House by Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress

If I find an author I like, and can’t wait for the next book – I look for the last book.

Sarah Blake has only written two novels – 10 years apart. Better known for The Postmistress, her 2010 success, Blake’s first novel Grange House is more Victorian Gothic romance, channeling Brontë with references toJane Eyre, ghosts in the attic, drowning lovers, and a mysterious character who drives the story.

The summer at Grange House in the late 1890s becomes the turning point in seventeen-year-old Maisie’s life.  Blake convincingly uses the manners and the language of that time to create what appears, at first, to be a summer idyll in Maine, with walks in the woods, ocean views, and a young girl spending the summer with her family.

Determined not to be “directed straight into marriage,” Maisie resists her parents’ plotting; other possibilities tempt her.  The mysterious Miss Grange teases Maisie with stories that are “not fiction – not true,” and challenges her to abandon convention and write her own life story.   Miss Grange, spinster and author, who lives on the top floor of the old hotel,  holds  secrets about Maisie, her father, and her heritage that threaten to change her world.

Up to this point Blake cleverly integrates mysterious characters and sustains the intrigue by never revealing all.  Who really were those lovers who drowned?  Who is buried in the lone grave?  Why does Maisie’s mother change her mind from protecting her daughter from a likely husband?  What ghosts roam about? What will happen next?

Hoping to be a writer like her role model, Maisie starts a correspondence with Miss Grange when the summer ends.  The diaries are a window into the secrets, but when Miss Grange reenters the story with her diaries in “Volume II,” the stories within the stories, and Blake’s long tangential pages on the philosophy of writing that had no apparent connection to the action are frustrating distractions from the plot…

“When I sit down to write, at first it is as though I am descending downward through the fleecy coverings in my head, and down I go, down I go, all the while staring out the window, in the attitude of someone at study, my pen in my hand.  And the soft procession of my thoughts float past me as I fall, until I am suddenly stuck upon one that will not fall past, something solid, a voice perhaps or a scrap of conversation I do not know the beginning of, or the end.  And then I take up my pen and I begin to listen.”

Blake returns to her story with more revelations in “Volume III,” and recaptures the pace.  Suddenly, the action speeds up with Maisie refocusing on the mysteries and reexamining her power in determining her own future.  Of course, the handsome knave who professes his love helps, but all is not what it seems, and Blake turns the narrative again, keeping the reader off balance.

The ending is a surprise.  Be sure to note the date.

Grange House is a “delicious read,” full of nuances and mystery – a book to be read by the fire or on the beach, forgetting the rest of world.

If you like Brontë, you won’t be disappointed in Blake’s book – her first.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

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.