The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

FDR Memorial

Last week, when we were in DC, we went to the Holocaust Museum. I didn’t know whether I would tell you anything about the Holocaust Museum, because what would one say about the experience? I can’t say that I “enjoyed” it. But I do think it’s set up very well and it’s extremely moving. I have read a lot of books about the Holocaust, fiction and non-fiction, so I learned the most on the top floor, which is focused mostly on the Nazi rise to power. I had mentally prepared myself to cry a lot in the museum, but I didn’t, really. I cried afterwards at the Lincoln Memorial. I don’t know why, exactly, though the words on the Lincoln Memorial are moving and I do consider Lincoln to be my special friend. Maybe it was because we visited the FDR Memorial earlier that day, before we visited the Holocaust Museum. Lincoln was just a man, but he did act when he saw injustice. I don’t feel the same way about FDR. Which brings us to our book review.

The Postmistress is a novel set during World War II before America’s involvement. It features three groups of people: newlyweds Will and Emma, radio personality Frankie Bard, and Iris–the eponymous postmistress–and the community around her. When Will, a doctor, loses a mother in childbirth, he feels compelled to go to London for his atonement and help the victims of the bombings. There he meets Frankie, the voice on the radio who helped him make the decision to “serve his time” in London. Frankie, a reporter, is covering the London bombings but longs to go to the continent to gather up the whispers of a story she feels is brewing there. And Iris wants to continue to keep order in her small corner of the world, delivering the mail as precisely and carefully as she can in the hopes that will be enough to keep everyone safe. Each of these Americans is challenged in a different way by the War going on in Europe.

There is a scene in The Postmistress in which Frankie is on a train. In Germany. And things start happening. I turned to Mike and said, “We spent five hours in the Holocaust Museum and I am not sure I can do this.” I didn’t want to close the book, but I didn’t think I could take another Holocaust story right now. Thankfully the book did not go in the direction that trains and Germany and World War II might lead you to believe. But it was still a difficult book to read after so recently seeing the many signs of the rise of Nazi Germany.

What I liked best about The Postmistress is that it clearly focuses in on the idea of storytelling. Frankie tells little snapshots of stories, but she doesn’t stay for the whole thing. She doesn’t know what happens afterwards. She can come in and tell a moving story, but she doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting before or after. She gets to leave and move on. Frankie is living that kind of life in almost every way. After some conversations in the book, she starts to wonder whether that is enough. Blake also emphasized this theme by deliberately not giving a lot of background about her own characters, which I thought was incredibly smart. If she had undercut that point by weighing down her own story with life and relationship details, it would probably have been less satisfying in the end. Instead, we get just enough to realize that Blake is right, that life must be lived as more than just soundbites, that each person’s life is an intricate story, and while it is a privilege to observe someone’s story, we shouldn’t assume because of that that we know everything about them.

I had a difficult time keeping the characters straight at first, but then it all seemed to gel. If I still worked in the public library, I would have picked this for my book club in a hot second. The characters are wonderful, I loved the “female reporter” angle, and I especially enjoyed the questions about life and truth and the immediacy of war. Difficult in some ways, but satisfying and thought-provoking.

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