A seemingly innocuous question, especially today in the era of Twitter and texting. After all, who actually even sends letters anymore? But change the setting. Go back to a time when, not only was there no Twitter or texting, but even having a television was virtually unheard of. A time when people got their information from the radio and newspapers, and communicated over distance mostly by letter. Such is the setting of Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress.
In 1940 the war in Europe was a nebulous concept for most Americans, something they heard snippets about on their radios. It wasn’t something that actually touched their lives. That changes for three residents of a small town in Cape Cod when, moved by the radio broadcasts of the London Blitz, local physician Will Fitch goes to volunteer in a London hospital, leaving his young wife, Emma, behind.
The town’s postmistress, Iris James, becomes the sole conduit for communication between Will and Emma, dutifully delivering his correspondence. Initially arriving on a daily basis, it eventually trickles to a stop. When another letter finally does arrive, Iris recognizes from the writing on the envelope it is not from Will. Impulsively, Iris chooses not to deliver the letter, instead taking it home and steaming it open to reveal the secrets contained within.
Meanwhile, a woman on the other side of the Atlantic is also in possession of a letter for Emma, as well as the secrets that surround it. American journalist Frankie Bard is the voice of the war for most Americans, working alongside Edward R. Murrow to deliver news of the events unfolding in Europe via daily radio broadcasts. It was Frankie’s stories of the horrors in London which lured Will away from home and into the war, so it’s rather ironic when they come to be in the same bomb shelter one particularly devastating night. How Frankie comes to be in possession of the letter and what she chooses to do with it are questions the answers to which have larger ramifications in the context of the book than just what enlightenment they could bring to Emma.
The Postmistress is a deceptively placid story. Other than the descriptions of the war relayed by Frankie during her broadcasts, there is not really much action to speak of in the book. And yet, there always seems to be a simmering tension, an explosion of devastating knowledge just waiting to spring forth and level one of the three women around whom the story revolves. Except that it never does, and the story sputters and meanders to conclusion.
The Postmistress is a very well written book, make no mistake about that. Blake obviously put a significant amount of work into researching the time period, and her descriptions of war-torn London in particular are quite vivid. There are also some interesting questions raised. For example, is it worse to hurt someone by withholding information and leave them wondering, or to reveal it and crush all their hope? Where does the greater loyalty lie? In keeping a direct promise to one, or delivering on an implied promise to many? That one of the driving forces behind the actions of both both Will and Frankie was their desire to know the answers to the questions “what happens to a story around its edges, what happens after the part we’re given” made it even more frustrating when we were not ourselves given that information.
Ultimately I came away from the book feeling somewhat disconnected from the plight of the characters and with no real sense of closure. But if you like books with a WWII backdrop or detailed character studies of women during that era, give The Postmistress a go. Perhaps you won’t feel as strong a need for loose ends to be tied up as I did and will simply be satisfied with Blake’s undeniably beautiful prose, despite the questions left unanswered.
The Postmistress is available from Berkley Trade (ISBN: 978-0425238691).
– The Postmistress by Sarah Blake –
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