Monday, May 10, 2010


"The Postmistress" by Sarah Blake was heavily promoted by the Book of the Month Club magazine, but I found it to be quite disappointing. First of all, the title doesn't really fit. Iris James, the eponymous postmistress, is not the main character. A more proper title would have been "The Woman War Correspondent", referring to Frankie Bard, an American who broadcasting from London during the Blitz of 1940.

While Frankie is daily facing death from German bombs, Iris and other residents of Franklin, MA, are behaving like most Americans did in 1940 - they're in denial of the danger the world is facing. However, Dr. Will Fitch and his new wife Emma start listening to Frankie's broadcasts. "We must do something", insists Emma. However, when Will decides to go to London and offer his services as a doctor, Emma is horrified.

Incredible as the coincidence may seem, Frankie and Will end up spending a night together in an air raid shelter. Very soon after, Will is killed by a bomb and Frankie finds a letter addressed to Emma in his pocket.

Frankie saves the letter, intending to one day deliver it to Emma back in America. But meanwhile she has an extremely important assignment - to meet up with the Jews escaping from Germany, Poland and other occupied countries. At great risk to her life, she does so, amassing countless recording cylinders containing refugee horror stories told in their own voices.

Back at the home front, you have middle-aged Iris, who considers herself to be an exemplary postmistress - always on time, efficient, accurate, never failing in her duty to get the mail out no matter the circumstances - snow, rain, sleet, hail, dark of night, etc. Except for one letter. This paragon of postal virtue of has taken it upon herself to not deliver one letter - the one from England notifying Emma of Will's death.

Iris' motives are not clear, except that perhaps she was fearful that such terrible news would cause pregnant Emma to go into labor.

Frankie's part of the story is the strongest and most engaging, whether she is avoiding bombs in London or riding trains crammed with refugees. Regarding the characters back home in Massachusetts, they are dull as dishwater. There's a "love" story between Iris and her boyfriend Harry that is just plain odd. A subplot involving Otto, a German Jew who now lives in Franklin, goes nowhere, as does the possible threat of a German sub lurking just offshore.

The book begins in the present, with famous newswoman Frankie regaling dinner party guests with the story of a postmistress who never delivered a certain letter. There's no reason for her to be so smug, however, for even though she eventually makes it to Franklin, she never does deliver Will's letter.

Reading this book was a lesson for me not to believe the hype written by book club magazine editors.

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