The wireless crackles with news of blitzed-out London and of the war that courses through Europe, leaving destruction in its wake. Listening intently on the other side of the Atlantic, newly-wed Emma considers the fragility of her peaceful married life as America edges closer to the brink of war. As the reporter’s distant voice fills the room, she sits convincing herself that the sleepy town of Franklin must be far beyond the war’s reach. But the life of American journalist Frankie, whose voice seems so remote, will soon be deeply entangled with her own. With the delivery of a letter into the hands of postmistress Iris, the fates of these three women become irrevocably linked. But while it remains unopened, can Iris keep its truth at bay?
I wanted to like The Postmistress and for 200 pages I really did. It has a cinematic quality to it, the descriptions are so perfect, you think you are watching a movie. A movie like Pearl Harbor, not The Draughtsman’s Contract, that’s for sure, but still, it’s an achievement. Also the story is really interesting for far more than two thirds of the book and then it sadly collapses. What starts out as an entertaining and very well-researched read becomes slightly insipid.
The Postmistress interweaves the lives of three very different American women. Frankie Bard, a war reporter, Emma Fitch, the young wife of a doctor and Iris James, the postmaster (she insists on calling herself “postmaster” and I never really got the title).
The story that is told in the book takes place in 1941. During the first two thirds of the book, Frankie is in war-torn Europe, reporting live on the radio, during the Blitz and later from different cities in France. Emma and Iris live both, in the fictional small town Franklin in Massachusetts and hear Frankie’s broadcasts that brings the war into their living rooms. They feel Frankie’s engagement, they live the tragedy with her. They are so far away if it wasn’t for Frankie the war would seem almost unreal. Apart from Harry Vale, Iris’ fiancé, no one in Franklin, Massachusetts thinks that America will ever go to war, even though the draft has started.
The plot starts to get silly when Emma’s husband decides to go and help in London. He seeks atonement for a “medical accident” for which he feels responsible.
The second third of the book shows Frankie travelling with various trains from Germany to Portugal to interview refugees on the trains. She collects the stories on disks and those voices will later be listened to – thanks to a huge story-twist – in Franklin.
The central story is the one part of the book that I didn’t like and this is unlucky because it ties the three parts together. The idea was to tell the story of a letter that is not delivered because the postmistress decides to hold it back.
Something else that didn’t quite work for me is due to the handling of the characters. Although all three women get their equal share at the beginning, it becomes ultimately Frankie’s story. The other two seem to be mere vehicles to make the plot work.
Sarah Blake writes in her after-word that Frankie couldn’t have had access to a portable disk recorder at that time. What she uses came into usage in 1944 and enabled live-recording from the battlefields.
I took liberty with the date because World War II was the first war that was brought into people’s living rooms by radio, and I wanted to highlight the power of the voice to convey the untellable, the refugees speaking into an air into which they will vanish.
Sarah Blake studied a lot of books on female war reporters, Martha Gellhorn and many other books on WWII. The themes are decidedly interesting and it is no wonder the book has A Reader’s Guide and Discussion Questions. An ideal choice for a book club I presume. Occasionally I wonder if these Reader Guides are not meant to justify the book and ultimately to sell it. It strikes me that I see this more in more in books, even in so-called American literary fiction.
The history of female war reporters and the evolution of reporting is interesting. I think the book also captures very well how far away the war seemed to the Americans. It looks at the way people go on about their lives while in another part of the world people go through terrible things. This seemed very timely and I was reminded of the situation in Japan. We are here and safe while people in another country fight for their survival. How do we go on living as if nothing was happening?
If you are still curious, here is The book’s homepage where you can read the first chapter.