Thursday 13 January 2011

The Postmistress, Sarah Blake

I've always been interested in the Second World War, since I studied it in middle school. I've read plenty of books set during that era, (Goodnight Mister Tom, The Book Thief, Atonement, to name but a few) but on opening The Postmistress, I realised that I had a very Eurocentric perspective of it. Some of my reading and watching dealt with the attitudes of the British people towards America at the time, both rather grudging if not outright hostile ("late for every war," "overpaid, oversexed and over here") and admiring of the glamour of the GIs, but I realised that I'd read nothing from the point of view of American characters between 1939 and 1941, not directly involved - yet - but seeing the devastation and wondering if and how they should get involved.

 The Postmistress begins at the end of 1940, the height of the Blitz in London and other major cities, but before the USA had joined in the war. The story follows three American women: Frankie, the brave, impulsive, passionate young radio journalist who reports home what she sees in London. Back home, in the village of Franklin, Cape Cod, we have Iris, a slightly eccentric but efficient spinster who is the postmistress of the title (although she prefers the title postmaster) and Emma, young, insecure wife of the village doctor who has left her alone and pregnant, to "do his bit" helping the wounded of the Blitz after hearing Frankie's broadcasts.

Although the book is called The Postmistress, the main character is undoubtedly Frankie, caught in the middle of the war, seeing what is happening in Europe and filled with the urgency to convey this to her countrymen, to stir them to do something, make a difference. Infuriated by what she sees as other people's indifference, she is desperate to make her mark, feeling that she is shouting into the wind but keeps going because "whatever is coming does not just come [..] it's helped by people wilfully looking away." Her nationality allows her into occupied France and Germany where she finds herself on trains of Jewish refugees, daring to report on what she found, what people didn't want to see. Frankie's determination, stubbornness and sometimes recklessness make her come to life as a character. Sometimes in conversation she comes across as ruthless or arrogant, but this is because she cares so much and is frustrated by perceived indifference from those who haven't been where she's been or seen what she's seen. But ultimately she realises that she can't make a neat little story of people's suffering, with a beginning and an end. She can tell what she's seen, but "the story just whispers off in the dark." It isn't until she arrives back in the USA that she discovers what an impact her reports make to those at home, that maybe she can help to make a difference after all.

Iris and Emma's stories are entwined with Frankie's, but they are secondary characters in comparison, and I never felt that I knew them as people. I found myself wondering why the book was named after Iris instead of Frankie, and concluded that it is because of the power of the postmistress, whose role, though superficially a little one, ensures that letters go directly from sender to receiver. Although this is relevant to one of the main story threads, I think that the postmistress of the title is a symbol of each character's place in a chain of events, rather than specifically describing Iris's role in the book.

If you liked this you might enjoy:
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows


  1. I almost bought this one yesterday! The only reason I didn't is because I have so many books to read already!

    I loved historical fiction, especially that which is centered around WWII. Like you, I've mostly read this from a European perspective, so this sounds interesting. I'll pick it up on my next visit to the book shop! :)

  2. Very insightful review Katie :)
    I've heard mixed things about this one, but after reading your thoughts, I have added it to my TBR list.

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  4. This sounds great. I had never heard of it, but it sounds amazing. However, I don't really like war-set stories because I end up either crying or doing too much research about casualties and crying too. The cover is gorgeous though.


  5. I didn't love this book and was curious to see what you had to say about it. Good observations! Sometimes we can at least appreciate a book even if we don't particularly enjoy it.


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