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Sonderbooks Book Review of

The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake


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The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake

Review posted March 3, 2011.
Amy Einhorn Books (Penguin), New York, 2010. 326 pages.
Starred Review.

I had the library book of The Postmistress actually sitting on my bedside table with my bookmark right in the middle when I saw a line at ALA Annual Conference where the publisher was giving away copies of the book for you to have the author sign. I was enjoying the book very much, so I eagerly got in line and got her signature.

This is a story of World War II and lives that intertwined in England and in America.

Frankie Bard, an American radio reporter in London during the war introduces the story:

There were years after it happened, after I'd returned from the town and come back here to the busy blank of the city, when some comment would be tossed off about the Second World War and how it had gone -- some idiotic remark about clarity and purpose -- and I'd resist the urge to stub out my cigarette and bring the dinner party to a satisfying halt. But these days so many wars are being carried on in full view of all of us, and there is so much talk of pattern and intent (as if a war can be conducted like music), well, last night I couldn't help myself.

"What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?" I asked.

"Don't tell me any more," a woman from the far end of the table cried in delight, shining and laughing between the candles. "I'm hooked already."

I watched the question take hold. Mail, actual letters written by hand, being pocketed undelivered. What a lark! Anything might happen....

Never mind, I thought. I am old. And tired of the terrible clarity of the young. And all of you are young these days.

Long ago, I believed that, given a choice, people would turn to good as they would to the light. I believed that reporting -- honest, unflinching pictures of the truth -- could be a beacon to lead us to demand that wrongs be righted, injustices punished, and the weak and the innocent cared for. I must have believed, when I started out, that the shoulder of public opinion could be put up against the door of public indifference and would, when given the proper direction, shove it wide with the power of wanting to stand on the side of the angels.

But I have covered far too many wars -- reporting how they were seeded, nourished, and let sprout -- to believe in angels anymore, or, for that matter, in a single beam of truth to shine into the dark. Every story -- love or war -- is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.

Or so it seems to me.

The Postmistress is a story of a postmistress who is new to a small New England town in 1940. It tells what happens that results in a fine upstanding conscientious woman not delivering a letter.

It's also the story of the other people of the town: a young doctor and his wife, a man who watches for German submarines landing off the coast, and what people in the town think of the war "over there." It's the story of a war correspondent writing stories for the radio that catch people's imaginations back home. And it's the story of why Frankie Bard came to visit that little town.

This story is richly textured and intriguing. It gives you a taste of what it must have been like in London during the Blitz. But mostly, it tells you the story of fallible humans trying to do what's right in extraordinary times, humans who each have their own stories, but whose stories become intertwined.