Reader’s Journal: The Postmistress

The trouble with trying to talk about a novel weeks after one’s finished the book is that one tends to forget a lot–then again, maybe that says more about the book than anything. Actually, if I were to go just on “feeling” alone, I would have to say I enjoyed The Postmistress, but I didn’t love it. Briefly, The Postmistress is about two women, Iris James and the ironically named Frankie Bard, both of whom are responsible for delivering the news, the former through the mail as the postmaster of Franklin, Massachusetts, and the latter as a news reporter covering the Blitz in London during the first years of World War II.

What brings the two of them together is their inability to deliver the news to one woman in particular, Emma Fitch, who has married the town doctor, Will Fitch. Will, along with the rest of the town, believes his family is cursed because of something that happened to his father. When something goes terribly wrong with one of his patients, he decides that fate has caught up with him, and he decides to join the war effort, unofficially, by traveling to London and caring for the injured.

The novel covers the early years of the war before Pearl Harbor, when most people were concerned about the possibility that the Germans could cross the Atlantic and attack America. There’s a general feeling in the town that America will somehow have to involve itself, that many of the men (well, boys)  in town will have to go to war, but for the most part, throughout the book, the townspeople go about their everyday business. The exception is Harry Vale, Iris’s love interest, who watches for German U-boats to surface.

I’m giving you a very broad summary. To me, the most compelling parts of the book had to do with Frankie Bard and her time in London and then her time traveling across Europe to capture the story of Jewish refugees who have been forced out of Germany by Hitler. The part of the novel that deals with Frankie’s time in London brought to mind another (much better, in my opinion) book, The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters, which also tells the story (backwards) of several people in London and how their lives were affected by the war. In London, Frankie works with Edward R. Murrow, who seems to be there mainly to ground the story in history and add more realism. The rest of the time we see her, she is traveling across Europe, capturing the stories of displaced Jews, and in these sections the novel is gripping.

Had the whole story been Frankie’s, it would have been a terrific book, and it is worth reading for that alone, and  for the terrific job it does of reminding us how important radio and letters were in carrying the news. To be honest, the rest of it was a bit Lifetime television movie for me. I wasn’t drawn in by Iris or Emma, and I thought the ending was melodramatic. (What? You don’t think I am going to tell you how it ends, do you?) Still, Blake writes well, and she does do a good job giving a sense of the tension Americans felt back home, and how they were affected (or not) by what they heard on the radio.

Some passages:

The searchlight shot straight up into the blackness where, singly or in pairs, the German planes flew like shuttlecocks up and back down the river—a relentless rhythm. The incendiaries dropped first, firebombing the darkened city, forcing it alight and ablaze, cutting open a pathway for the others to follow. Those came down screaming, or whistling, the heaviest ones roaring like an express train through a tunnel. Worst of all were the parachute bombs that floated gently, silently down to kill.

One could stand on a corner and see a long row of untouched houses, their white fronts perfectly sharp against the autumn sky—all England in a block—then turn the next corner to find nothing but flat waste and fire, the exhausted faces of women carrying cheap cardboard suitcases and handing their children up into the refugee buses waiting at the square. Each night of the Blitz, the war passed over London like the Old Testament angel, block by block: touching here, turning from there, and Frankie followed, wanting to get it down, wanting to get at the heart of it.

He wrote a letter every day. And he had never yet gotten a letter back. Every afternoon, he turned around and walked back out as quietly as he had come in, with the exhaustion of a man who hurled himself against the wall of each passing day, and would do so again and again, until the wall broke.

Here was a box for each and every family in the town. Letters, bills, newspapers, catalogs, packages might be sent forth from anywhere in the world, shipped and steamed across the water and land, withstanding winds and time, to journey ever forward towards this single, small, and well-marked destination. Here was no Babel. Here, the tangled lines of people’s lives unknotted, and the separate tones of voices set down upon a page were let to breach the distance. Hand over hand the thoughts were passed. And hers was the hand at the end.

A writer, a real writer, in possession of a story headed straight for its rapids, eyes on the water, paddling fast for the middle in order to see as well, as closely as could be. In order to see like that, one had to entertain the fact of brutal, simple cruelty. The Germans were, in fact, gathering the Jews in camps and ghettos and simply letting them die there. If Frankie could tell that story, if she could tell it as well as Murrow was telling the Blitz, she could move the Jews and their plight onto the front pages—she could bring what was being buried now in details, what could be dismissed as random and unintentional, into full narrated sight.

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