Newest Review: ... seems incapable of fleshing her characters out. Both Emma and Iris are particularly one-dimensional for instance. Iris is portrayed as a ... more
The Postmistress Fails to Deliver
The Postmistress - Sarah Blake
Member Name: fizzywizzy
The Postmistress - Sarah Blake
Advantages: Occasionally great writing; the premise is a good one
Disadvantages: Doesn't focus enough on best story; weak female characters; too many errors
The eponymous postmistress is Iris James, the forty year old 'in tact' postmaster (although the novel is called the 'Postmistress' Iris insists that the term is postmaster whether the person is male or female) of Franklin, a small community on Cape Cod. She's only been there a year but already she knows everyone; this is the 1940s, long before the internet and even before most people had a telephone at home, so correspondence was by letter or telegram, and with all post passing through her hands, the intuitive postmaster knows everyone's business.
Emma Fitch is newly arrived in Franklin, a new bride come from the city to join her doctor husband. Her new found happiness does not last long as Dr. Fitch, feeling responsible for the death of a patient during childbirth, decides to leave for England to help attend to casualties during the Blitz.
Frankie Bard is a 'radio gal' sending reports back to the States from London for CBS. She loves her job and feels strongly that Americans should know what's happening in Europe. Her colleague, Harriet, an veteran reporter in Europe has been gathering snippets of information that suggest that there is more to the story of the Jews than simply being 'refugees'; when Harriet dies in a bombing raid, Frankie persuades her boss to let her travel across Europe to investigate Harriet's theory.
The arrival of a letter brings bad news for one of the citizens of Franklin and the astute Iris knows immediately what news the envelope contains. She figures that if she can delay the news she can minimise the pain but at heart Iris is devoted to her job and her unwavering belief that the post office reflects what is right and proper: "if there was a place on earth in which God walked, it was the workroom of any post office in the United States of America." Iris declares Will Iris pass on the letter, keep it until there's a better time, or will the truth remain undiscovered?
"The Postmistress" is set in the early 1940s at which time the United States had not yet entered the war; preparations were underway, however, should that eventuality occur. The men of Franklin start to enlist, going off to training camps while at home the women gather metal to be salvaged and re-used to build aircraft. Among those who volunteer for civil defence is Franklin's garage owner, Harry Vale, who spends his free time keeping a watch over the harbour for possible signs of a u-boat invasion. I found him one of the more interesting characters but his near paranoia is barely fleshed out leaving the reader wondering why he is so sure the Germans are almost at the door. In fact it's the case that throughout this novel - in which no character is really well developed - the men are by far the more interesting characters and have stories that would be worth reading in their own right.
Otto Schilling is an Austrian man who arrives in Franklin having been separated from his wife in a refugee camp in France, due to a typographical error in her papers. Harry Vale gives Otto a job and Otto proves to be a good worker but the locals are naturally suspicious. The American government has put a cap on immigration and time is running out for Jewish people trying to find a way out of Germany and other occupied countries but unaware of what is happening in Europe (and even people in Europe did not know the full extent of the horrors faced by Jewish people), the people of Franklin see Otto as a German first and foremost and a German could be a spy.
The most memorable, and most valuable in a literary sense, part of "The Postmistress" is the middle section when Frankie gets her chance. Things don't go according to plan however, and Frankie has to retrace her journey and conduct her interviews on the trains which are crammed with mostly Jewish refugees trying to get to Bordeaux or Lisbon to get a boat to the States, Cuba or Brazil. The author, Sarah Blake, suddenly starts to write well, getting across the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding as desperate men, women and children squeezed into the train carriages, or waited holding their breath for their documents to be declared in order. Understandably Frankie returns to England a different person, haunted by the stories of what she has seen but she's a journalist and a journalist needs a whole story; what Frankie has is just the edges.
The people of Franklin, like so many American cities and towns, listen each night to Frankie's broadcasts as she vividly describes what it's like to be squashed up in the bomb shelters and tube stations with hundreds of Londoners, 'funk holes' she calls them (so many times that it becomes an irritation). She describes what it's like to emerge when the all clear sounds, not knowing what's still standing; the horror of day time raids; the courage of the men operating the anti artillery guns. Emma Fitch is one of those listening in Franklin, and while she listens intently, she reacts quite negatively to Frankie as she tells Americans that they must 'pay attention', something she urges throughout the novel.
"The Postmistress" is a novel that contains too many stories. Otto Schilling's story is poignant and begs to be followed up but it is treated so shabbily that it would have better not to have been included. Other threads could easily have been left out, not because they were unrelated but because the central story, had it been the focus of more attention, would have been enough. It seems to me that Sarah Blake trusts neither her instincts for what makes a good story, and when she's made her point. Having explained some character trait or other, she tends to hammer the point home so that some points are over emphasised while others are left disappointingly sketchy. To say that the book is full of historical errors (on top of the little changes the author admits to having made in the name of literary licence) is to kick "The Postmistress" when it's down, it is enough to say there are lots; the book is poorly researched and the writing is clumsy and awakward enough to require some sentences to be read and re-read.
Summary: An overhyped and disappointingly confused novel sert during WW2