Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Postmistress Examines WWII and Human Empathy (With an Interesting Plot, As Well!)

Since it was published in February, I've read dozens of reviews for Sarah Blake's second novel The Postmistress. Sometimes, I avoid those over-zealously marketed books, figuring that if they held any merit they would be able to stand on their own, without all the hype. I managed to dodge The Postmistress until a month or so ago, when it showed up in my local library's New Books section. Sitting there on the shelf, fresh off the hold list (or accidentally misplaced back into circulation from where it should have been on the hold shelf), it called out to me. What was it about this book? I'd heard bloggers and reviewers laud the book's cover. It didn't really appeal to me with its antiqued letter and purple rose. It was a historical novel that looked like a historical novel (well, okay -- minus the corseted heroine with windblown hair on the cover). And I don't really like historical novels. At all.

I must say on all counts, I was absolutely wrong about The Postmistress. I enjoyed it immensely. It was one of the first novels in a long time that I couldn't wait to read each evening. I thought about the characters when I wasn't reading; I wondered what would happen to them next. In my opinion, a book is outstanding if it hooks a reader so thoroughly.

In The Postmistress, Blake tells a story of World War II that has not been told before (or, if it has, not to me -- but again, keep in mind that historical fiction is not my forte). She examines the war prior to America's entrance into it, from varying viewpoints of those on both sides of the Atlantic and their unique perspectives on what the Nazis were doing in Europe. For many Americans, the only news they heard of this European war came through radio broadcasts and newspaper accounts.

Blake introduces a whole host of small town characters living in the enclosed New England community of Cape Cod, most wrapped up in their own insular dramas and ignorant of the plight of Londoners during the nightly bombing raids and of Jewish people living all across Europe as the Nazi army marched through and gained control. Postmistress Iris James struggles to maintain the status quo, doing what her inner self of right and wrong directs her to do. Emma Fitch, the local doctor's wife, wrestles with her own demons. Blake also tells the story of female radio reporter Frankie Bard, who was living and reporting from London during the raids.

Intertwined with factual, historical recall of the war, Blake also introduces larger questions about humanity and our reactions to the hardships of others. As human beings are we primarily concerned with ourselves, or with the state of our world? Blake uses the characters of Iris, Emma, and Frankie to address the intricacies of living in a world filled with wars both large and small.

The Postmistress is a novel I would recommend to almost anyone, as it relates to the stories of so many. Blake's second book is not just a piece of women's fiction or a historical novel, but rather a novel with far-reaching implications for our own era.

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