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Happy reading!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, follows the story of three women: a World War II news correspondent in London, a postmaster for a small town on the Massachusetts coast, and a young bride making a home with her town doctor husband in the same small town.

The woman whose narration begins the novel is Frances Bard, often referred to as Frankie. Frankie is a radio reporter, whose job is to, “Seek truth. Report it. Minimize harm.” Frankie was dedicated to finding and reporting the story, traveling to London during Germany’s persistent fire bombing in the early 1940s. When a friend was killed in the apartment they shared, she undertook to continue her line of investigation: the Jewish refugees fleeing German-held territories. When she accidentally becomes part of the story, she finds herself no longer able to report it, and questioning whether she was minimizing harm.

Iris James, the postmaster, finds comfort in the regularity and authority of her post, which she believes defends against chaos and disorder. As the author describes it, “One entered (the post office), as one did every day, and was immediately met with a sense of calm born out of rigid adherence to an unwavering routine.” And Iris enforces that sense of routine and calm by her adherence to duty.

Emma Fitch is married to Will, the town doctor. After a tragic loss for which Will felt responsible, he volunteers to provide medical care in London. He’d heard how bad things were there from Frankie’s radio broadcasts, and in a sense, he seems to want to put himself in harm’s way. Frankie meets him there, and it’s clear he seems happier knowing that bad things do happen without or despite anyone’s intervention. Emma is left at home to wait for news of his return when his letters stop coming.

And it is his letters that are the focal point of the story, and in particular, the dilemma for more than one character. As Frankie remarked to Iris, ‘“Something could be diverted, or stopped, and it would be your hand that fixed it, your hand that set the story going again. You’re like a good narrator.” Frankie paused, noting the flush rise in Iris’s face. “Or even, the author. You could choose who gets their mail and who—“‘ before she was interrupted.

Frankie’s reporting mantra proves to be a struggle for more than one of them, and it is the diversion from both their values and their job requirements that causes them to question when reporting the truth conflicts with minimizing harm.

The Postmistress was published in 2010 by Penguin.

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