Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: The Postmistress

Author: Sarah Blake

Format: paperback galley, 322 pages
Characters: Iris James, Harry Vale, Emma Fitch, William Fitch, Frankie Bard
Setting: Franklin Mass, London 1941
Genre: literary fiction
Source: LibraryThing Early Review program

Set on both sides of the Atlantic during the early months of WWII, this is a compelling novel that pulls us right into the lives of Iris James-the Postmaster at Franklin Mass on Cape Cod; Emma Fitch-new bride of the town's doctor; Harry Vale-a WWI vet who is convinced that the Germans will land a Uboat on Cape Cod; and of Frankie Bard, the radio reporter working in London with Edward R. Murrow during the Blitz

Miss James is determined to maintain order and discipline in her life. The mail will be stamped and delivered on time without pause.  Harry Vale wants her to lower the Post Office's flag pole by several feet, claiming it serves as a beacon to Germans off-shore.  Iris balks at that suggestion, but agrees to petition the postal department for permission.

Emma, still recovering from a feeling of being abandoned by parents who have died, clings to her husband trying to establish an identity in this small town. After listening to Frankie Bard's emotional broadcasts about the hardships being endured by the British during the bombing of London, and after other events I'll leave to the readers (I DON'T DO SPOILERS), Dr. Fitch leaves behind his practice, his town, and his bride to go to London to help the many victims of the bombings.  He writes to Emma every night, and she mails him a letter every day. He promises he will return after six months.  When his letters suddenly stop, Emma becomes more detached, and Iris, as she watches her continue to mail her daily letter, becomes more concerned.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Frankie meets Dr Fitch in an air raid shelter one evening, and emerges to find her apartment destroyed and her roomate (who had been covering the Jewish story) dead. She convinces Murrow to let her go behind the war lines into Germany to find out what is really going on with the Jews.  She goes through France and Germany, gathering stories but not sure how (or whether) she will be able to tell them.

It is difficult to write about this story without spoiling the ending.  It's not necessarily a mystery, but this is a nuanced, evolving study of the impact of trauma, callousness, abandonment, death, and cruelty on the human beings who must live through war, and whose ability to survive, whose very humanity is constantly tested.  Frankie's stories of horror and personal suffering are particularly poignant and her mental anguish as she struggles to find a frame in which to report them, and deal with her meeting with Dr. Fitch,  are a cogent and mesmerizing thread pulling us along to an inevitable and powerful ending.

I encourage the reader NOT to read the cover blurb.  The 'hint' there about what is going to happen is overplayed, and comes so late in the story, that it is better left behind.  The forceful march to the inescapable ending, and Blake's exquisite character development and prose make this a compelling page-turner. It is a five star read, and the reader needs no road map to enjoy the journey.

many many thanks to LT Early Review program for making this copy available.


  1. Oh Tina, what an intriguing sounding book. I really do want to read this one. Thanks for the great review.

  2. Lucky you winning this one. And thanks for the heads up on not looking for the event the cover copy teases about. It is frustrating to me when the implication is that something is either much more important than it really is or that it comes much sooner than it does.

  3. This has been on my TBR list for a while now, I adore the cover and I finally got myself on the hold/wait list for it at the library. Congrads on your win fro LT ER :)

  4. Speaking of covers, and this has nothing to do with books, but I also love this cover. It looks very much like one of my favorite roses called Angel Face whose fragrance is divine. However, I suspect it is a Hansa, a Japanese variety of Rosa Rugosa that grows well here on the rugged New England coast and also smells heavently. Which just goes to prove---stick with Tutu, you'll get horticulture with your literature.!


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