The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

26 April 2010

The Postmistress - book review

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

First line: It began, as it often does, with a woman putting her ducks in a row.

With a beginning like that, I was hooked right away! I like order, and ducks should certainly be in a row. The woman in question is Iris James, Postmaster of Franklin, Massachusetts. It is the early years of the Second World War - London is enduring the Blitz and America is still mostly ignorant of what exactly is happening in Europe. Iris believes very strongly in order, and has utter faith in the ability of established institutions and government bodies to make the right decisions. She is falling in love with a man who has a slightly different outlook. Harry is certain he will one day spot German U-Boats off the coast and is sceptical of the government's ability (or willingness) to defend him.

The good citizens of Franklin listen to the reports of Frankie Bard on the radio. Frankie is a young journalist working with Edward R. Murrow in London; she tells the stories of people she meets on the street, in the shops, down in the shelters during the air raids, attempting to convey to Americans how serious the war has become and how important it is for America to become involved.

To illustrate how incomprehensible the situations was to most Americans, Blake writes: "And bombs were falling on Coventry, London and Kent. Sleek metal pellets shaped like the blunt-tipped ends of pencils aimed down upon hedgerow thatch. What was a hedgerow? Where was Coventry? In History and Geography, Hitler's army marched upon the school maps of Europe, while next door in English, the voices recited from sing song memory - I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there; of clay and wattles made. - Bombers flew above the wattles, over and England filled with the songs of linnets and thrush. There were things being broken we had to American names for.

The Postmistress tells the stories of three sets of people who become connected through Frankie's news reports, an undelivered letter, and loss. Just when the reader might begin to wonder why such sad things happen needlessly, Iris recounts the legend of Theseus who goes off to war, promising his father he'd return under white sails if he was alive. For years his father watched, until one day, his ship comes back - under black sails. Theseus was triumphant, but had forgotten his promise. The king walked off the cliff to his death on the rocks below. That story wouldn't be told, she says, if one of his crew had alerted Theseus to his mistake. The story tells what it knows... it couldn't change Theseus' actions, or reassure his father that his son was still alive.

The Postmistress has its share of seemingly needless tragedy and sorrow (it is a tale set during WWII, after all). It is a compelling, well-written, evocative of the era, and explores the usual war-time themes in a fresh light. This was a book that lingered when I had finished it (which I managed in a day, thanks to having dedicated reading time and being totally engrossed) though I thought it unravelled somewhat toward the end.

However, the last line is a perfect as the first and I can enthusiastically recommend the book: That's what the story knew.

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