Wednesday 18 January 2017

Letters to America bring atrocities, love and secrets

Sarah Blake paints a war in words, says Angela M Cornyn, at a time when our letters had the power to change lives

Angela M Cornyn

Published 10/01/2010 | 05:00

The Postmistress

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Sarah Blake

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'She walked London without a map, turning down streets toward the sound of voices in pubs and in the still-bright lights of theatres and dance halls. Hitler marched on Paris. The British pulled back to Dunkirk. Civil Defence passed out gas masks to the city. The children were sent to the country. And in the shops and waiting in line for the buses, she listened to the Londoners making flesh of these facts."

An excerpt from The Postmistress a historical war novel by Sarah Blake set in the years 1940-41. This novel takes us into the bombed-out streets of London during the Blitz, into refugee trains filled with desperate Jewish people trying to flee France and Germany, and finally to Franklin, a small Massachusetts town on Cape Cod just beginning to wake up to the realities of war.

The novel follows three unforgettable women in the months preceding the United States' involvement in the war: Iris James is the dedicated but strict, new, spinster postmaster of Franklin; Emma is the fragile, newly arrived bride of local doctor Will Fitch; and Frankie Bard is a young female American radio reporter working alongside Edward R Murrow in London.

A consummate professional in the male-dominated world of war reporting, Frankie risks her life to send the latest news in London and across Europe to the people safely at home in the US. Her journalist friend, Harriet, receives letters from Jewish relatives telling her of their persecution at the hands of the Nazis. After Harriet is killed one night in London in a Nazi bomb attack, Frankie is determined to report their stories so she gets permission to go to France and rides the trains recording the harrowing stories of Jewish refugees forced to escape Germany.

Frankie's radio dispatches travel across the Atlantic Ocean, imploring listeners to pay attention as the Nazis bomb London nightly and the war rages on. In Franklin, Will, Emma, Iris and Harry Vale, Iris's lover, spend their evenings listening to Frankie's anguished radio bulletins from the air-raid shelters. Harry, convinced that Germany is planning to invade the US, is on the lookout for German U-boats and believes the flagpole from the post office sets Franklin up to be a target. For other Franklin residents, the war seems remote.

A tragedy at work becomes the impetus for Dr Fitch to volunteer his services to London hospitals in an effort to appease his guilt and help the war effort. Emma is left behind with only postmistress Iris to look after her. He promises to return in six months.

Emma lets him go and holds on to her secret. Will asks Iris to hold a letter for him, to give to Emma if he is killed. With Will in London, the war begins to impinge on the lives of the Franklin residents.

Will meets Frankie during a London air raid and Frankie becomes the bearer of a letter she vows to deliver. Her journey eventually leads her to Franklin.

Despite postmistress Iris's usual rigorous adherence to rules, she does the unthinkable. She opens a letter and decides not to deliver it but can she keep its truth at bay? The fates of these three women become irrevocably linked when Frankie arrives on their doorstep and the two stories collide in a way no one could have foreseen.

The Postmistress has been published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Blitz in 2010. It is a profoundly moving story of love, loss, and life in war time. Remarkable both in scope and depth, it sweeps along from Europe to the United States swooping down into the lives of ordinary people and provides an immediate and, at times heart-wrenching account of the effects of war on lives, highlighting that they are more than the military cliche "collateral damage". It shows the human spirit at its best and worst as it captures with deadly accuracy man's inhumanity to man while at the same time demonstrates his innate will to survive and generosity of spirit.

The Postmistress has all the ingredients of a captivating tale: it depicts war, romance and secrets through the medium of letters, probably too many, but at a time when letters had the power to change the course of lives. Its well-drawn characters and beautifully wrought fiction ensure that its quote at the outset -- "war happens to people, one by one" -- comes alive through its pages and resonates long after the book is closed.

A thought-provoking read.

Sunday Independent

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