I was completely unprepared for where The Postmistress by Sarah Blake would take me, how it would get under my skin. I thought it was going to be a pleasantry, an easy read, but I found it intense.
I picked it up in a bookstore downtown, the cover displaying an old letter, a dried rose. As many of you all know, I have a love affair with old letters, with the power of handwritten words on the page, with the role of the U.S. Post Office, which held our world together and connected us in the pre-Internet age.
The blurb on the back revealed the story was set in 1940-41 in two worlds: war torn Europe and Cape Cod before America entered the war. Now I was hooked, as I often am, by the prospect of a story that recreates the world my parents came of age in.
So I purchased The Postmistress and brought it home and became lost in its dual narratives and its two protagonists.
Iris James, the postmistress in a small Cape Cod town, is at its center, figuratively and literally. She sees what comes in and what goes out of the town of Franklin. She is meticulous in handling the letters and packages that pass through her office, believing strongly in the need for order, for perfection, for every piece of "the system" to operate as it was meant to, for everything to be in its place. She means to be a flawless cog in a larger machine.
Frankie Bard is a war correspondent working with Edward R. Murrow for CBS. In London during the Blitz, she witnesses, she reports, and she delivers the news to the folks back home in America, one broadcast at a time. Her stories begin and end the day she reports them. At least that's what she thinks. When she leaves London to follow the flow of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, she discovers the weight of the stories she writes and collects, their power and their shortcomings. Everything that drew her into journalism and drove her into a war zone comes back to haunt her as she wonders if anyone is listening and if, in the end, it's even possible to tell the story of what is happening. Is there any order in war, in the stories, in the horror and the aftermath? Is there any hope or meaning in the madness?
The novel unexpectedly brings these two women together in a way that doesn't feel contrived but grows out of their respective roles and journeys. The story itself is quietly suspenseful, the writing is strong and visual, and the questions this novel asks about life, war, and faith burrowed into my head and would not let me go.
The main characters in the story are loners. Orphans. Only children. Solitary men and women. They are Observers, and all of them long consciously or subconsciously to be connected to a greater whole, to not just be the ones who See but be ones who are Seen. This thread in the book kept being pulled tighter and tighter around my heart. It's not a subject that is discussed in the Reader's Guide at the end of the book or in interviews with the author, but it had a profound impact on my reaction to the story.
Books come and go in my house, but I can tell you, this one is going to be sitting on my shelf and in my head for a long, long time.