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The Postmistress

The lives of three women converge in the months leading up to the US's entry into World War II.

By Yvonne Zipp / February 12, 2010

The Postmistress By Sarah Blake Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam 336 pp., $25.95

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It’s one of the most famous inscriptions in American life: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” And it’s something in which Americans have an unspoken faith: If you put a stamp on a letter and drop it in the mail, it will arrive at its destination.

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But what if a postal employee refused to deliver a letter? (It’s happened in real life: A mail courier made national headlines – and lost his job – a year ago for failing to inflict junk mail on the houses on his route.) That’s the nominal setup of Sarah Blake’s new novel The Postmistress, although it takes almost 250 pages for this moral dilemma to pop up.

Until then, Blake traces the lives of three women in the months leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II. One is the titular postmistress, one is a newly married doctor’s wife, and one is a radio reporter covering the Blitz under the tutelage of Edward R. Murrow. Can you doubt that the paths of these three are going to intertwine in life-changing ways? If so, you’ve never read a historical novel.

“The Postmistress” examines the question of truth-telling in wartime, and the fact that we can never learn the whole story, as the reporter takes her recorder on trains across Europe, interviewing the last wave of Jewish refugees trying to get out before the exits slam shut. The vitality inherent in that vocal record, fragmentary though it of necessity is, is the most resonant part of the novel.

Unfortunately, there have been an awful lot of books about World War II, and “The Postmistress,” while intelligent and well meaning, doesn’t ultimately have much new to add. It’s clear that Blake has done her research and book groups will enjoy its sincerity and competent prose.

But the dialogue lacks snap, a major character’s death is manipulative rather than tragic – Blake even alters history to try to give it punch – and she engages in expository overload that’s really not needed for such a well-known tale. And then there are her main characters.

Now, I have a working knowledge of history and have seen episodes of “Mad Men,” so I’m not unaware that the rules for women have changed in recent years. While I’ve never regarded myself as a militant feminist, the novel’s opening just about had me belting out Helen Reddy tunes and looking for undergarments to torch.

In the first chapter, Iris James, a 40-year-old postmaster of a small Cape Cod town, gets a gynecological exam so she can prove to the man she hopes will be her boyfriend that she’s still a virgin. And it’s apparently supposed to be touching – as opposed to, say, icky – when Iris gives her “purity certificate” to her would-be swain. (Harry Vale, Iris’s boyfriend, it must be said, is a good-hearted man who would never have asked for such a test.)

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