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.
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.)
In her professional life, however, Iris is ahead of her time – to the point where the gossips cackle that a man should have been given her job. And she takes her position seriously, watching over her town and all the varied pieces of their lives that slide through her capable fingers. Then there’s Emma Fitch, professional child-woman and the doctor’s new wife. Emma is a dishrag of the first water. She felt invisible before she married. “For the first time in her life, with Will, she had come to see herself because she’d look down and see herself – her waist, her arms, the bone on her wrist – in his hands. Because he’d been watching her. Like a fairy kissed into being, or the mermaid suddenly walking....” If the old “male gaze” saw isn’t enough, Emma demonstrates all the backbone of a paramecium.
When her husband volunteers to help during the Blitz, Emma doesn’t either (a) support him, or (b) tell him she’s pregnant, so he understands why she doesn’t want him to leave. Instead, she sends whiny missives and then talks about how tired she is of being brave and putting on a good front. I wondered if I had perhaps skipped a page.
Far more active is Frankie Bard, intrepid girl reporter, whose recklessness is matched only by her naiveté. (She escapes the bomb that kills her roommate because she’s having anonymous sex in an alley.) I kept wishing that Cary Grant would show up and call her a “doll-faced hick.” Sadly, nobody in “The Postmistress” is very witty, and so Frankie’s nickname among her fellow reporters is Beauty. (Where is Rosalind Russell when you need her?)
Blake does a good job of capturing small-town nastiness and Americans’ stolid desire to avoid another war at all costs. Less believable is the idea that “There were things being broken we had no American names for. There was war. What did it mean, War?” World War I was just 22 years before, so plenty of people would have been familiar with the concept.
Frankie’s frantic desire to get the story out, and her growing anguish about her country’s indifference and the unintended consequences of her reporting, however, help lift “The Postmistress” above the bland. Blake includes some nice details about radio correspondents’ roles during World War II. Take the London studio over which Murrow presides, “not much bigger than a closet, equipped with a battered table and chair and a single light shining on the microphone set in the middle of the table, heavy and blunt as a murder weapon....” And there’s a great bit where Frankie, ostensibly lauding the composer Ludwig von Beethoven, sneaks the Morse code “V” for victory past a German censor.
Iris may be the titular character, but readers learn remarkably little about her. Instead, the novel’s strengths rest on the shoulders of Frankie Bard, Radio Gal.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.