February 2010

Emma Kat Richardson

fiction

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

War is hell, and Sarah Blake, author of the new novel The Postmistress, has 101 ways to prove it. For example, did you know how graphic and devastating bomb explosions over a populated London skyline can be? Or that beloved and cherished family members (some of them even doctors and family men, no less!) oftentimes disappear without word, in much the same way their steady stream of written correspondence has the annoying tendency to abruptly dry up? These lessons (and many, many more) are all to be found here, bound and sandwiched between the interlocking stories of three World War II-era women and their copious struggles to make those elusively pesky ends meet, no matter how often the powers that be insist on moving those ends just out of reach.  

It’s not that The Postmistress is a bad book, in the sense that, say, Lynne Cheney’s unpublished bodice-ripping romance manuscript is a bad book. True enough, Blake’s cascading prose style and storytelling abilities are nothing if not engagingly crafted around the central premise. It’s clearly evident here that Blake knows her way around a solid set of character elements and requirements (note: fostering a perhaps unhealthy addiction to tragedy is a major bonus) and more than a few conveniently-laid plot devices. But the real underlying (and, even worse, nagging) issue with The Postmistress is that it functions as a novel which mistakenly finds its core message to be greater than its ability to tell it, and thus, never quite delivers anything remarkable or unique to justify the sum of its painstakingly strung together parts.  

But before we get too much literary sand in our eyes, let’s take a mere moment to dig into the sinewy meat of the story and uncover its own representation of a beating human heart. Set amongst the familiar and the comfortable (as far as any war setting can be considered “comfortable”) backdrop of the Second World War, three would be Rosie-the-Riveters are just barely floating along, fighting against the confusion and uncertainty inherent to the war-time atmosphere. The title character (whose status is really only restricted to the realm of the supporting) is a female postmaster named Iris James, who heads up the post office in the seaside, Cape-centric town of Franklin, Massachusetts. One of her favorite victims, er, mail recipients, is a young, recently married but ardently antisocial woman named Emma Fitch. Together and separately, these two are feeding their news hunger with overseas broadcasts from a quirky American girl in London, Frankie Bard -- a cub radio reporter who works under the watchful scrutiny of Edward R. Murrow, and dutifully broadcasts information of the ravaging in Europe to a pre-Pearl Harbor American audience.  

Among the interaction of these three, there springs up the intriguing trope of communication; or, perhaps more aptly, the overwhelming lack of detailed and interpersonal communication. Naturally, Iris the Postmistress is responsible for bringing the town of Franklin word from their friends and loved ones stranded in peril in Europe; particularly Emma Fitch, whose doctor husband Will has tried to rectify a recent medical failure by joining up with an army of American aide volunteers in London. Frankie Bard, too, is charged with communicating back to the States the intricate goings on of the war, and is very eager to set out for the Continent, newfangled tape recorder in tow, in order to capture the plight of the Jews and war refugees. (These days, this is a phenomenon we might refer to as “poverty porn.”) Then, as now, the act of hearing or not hearing from someone whose message could mean all the difference for the life and livelihood of the recipient is of the critical importance, and it’s rather interesting to watch the characters flail about for news -- any scrap of comfort or information -- in letter form, and then subsequently experience a peculiar kinship, taking shape in the modern concept of waiting on an email or a text message.  

That being said, the real problem with The Postmistress stems not from its lost-in-translation themes, but rather from the focus placed on its communicators in specific. Speaking from a personal perspective, I could have done with a lot less focus on the trials and tribulations of Frankie Bard (who more or less functions as an empty caricature of a 1940s pin-up girl, painted on the side of a fighter plane). Over the course of the reading, I found myself continually hungering to hear more from things on the other side of the pond -- specifically from Iris James and Emma Fitch. Presented here are two key players of clandestine, mysterious backgrounds and dubious present motives, and I would have liked to have seen them under a stronger microscope, and, especially, developed in a more detailed and believable way over the course of the novel’s 28 chapters. Yes, the scrapes and adventures of Frankie Bard are certainly action-packed and breathtaking -- the fodder of thousands of History Channel documentaries, really -- but Bard as a vehicle for the “war as hell” ideal never really amounts to anything new, fresh, or innovative. Aside from the fact that she’s a woman in a decidedly male-dominated field of work, the character of Frankie Bard is mostly about as two-dimensional as a drawing of a blonde with a bob-style haircut.  

I understand fully what Blake is gunning for, here, so to speak, and I appreciate her valiant efforts for trying, but the unequivocal focus on one not-so-particularly alluring character is the shortcoming of this novel that fails to really catapult the action to anywhere that’s legitimately meaningful. Indeed, war is hell, but perhaps there are more subtle, creative ways to draw our attention to a well-acknowledged fact that has existed for as long as people have been able to pick up spears and seize property from their neighbors.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
Amy Einhorn Books
ISBN: 0399156194
336 Pages