[1 April 2010]
The Postmistress is an elegant novel about the power of the human voice. The written word can be concealed, delayed, or misdirected. It is a person’s voice which haunts and lingers.
Radio was the medium that brought news of the second world war into American homes. Reporters needed to stay professional to be taken seriously, but also to appeal to the hearts of their listeners as US support was sought and London was bombed. As a supporting character, Sarah Blake brings us a portrayal of Edward R. Murrow, CBS reporter and key historical figure in the development of radio journalism. In occupied territory, censors controlled the air waves and although journalists were given some freedom to move around, provided they had the right paperwork, it could be difficult to tell the real story.
Parallel stories take place in The Postmistress in 1940 on either side of the Atlantic as WWII progresses and Germany bombs Britain. Blake switches smoothly back and forth between London, the small Cape Cod town of Franklin, Massachusetts, and a reporter’s treacherous journey around western Europe as Jews of all nationalities are forced to leave their homes and seek refuge.
Three women narrators jointly weave the tale. Two are strong personalities, working in roles often reserved for men, and enjoy the personal liberation that their work brings them. They are Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, and Frankie Bard, an American reporter covering WWII and broadcasting regularly to Franklin as her voice crosses the ocean. Both women have the chance to share a terrible secret with the third woman, Emma Fitch. Each finds that when the moment comes, they’re not as strong as they thought. Or perhaps their interpretation of strength changes.
Quiet Emma defines herself in relation to others. She arrives in Franklin early in the story to join her husband, the town doctor. Diminutive and reserved, Emma has always felt herself an outsider, and it is only her husband who tethers her to the present, to the society around her. Together they listen to the radio, sharing in the uncertainty of war time. Until Will Fitch loses a patient and feels he must go to London to help the besieged populace, Emma is proud of his moral compass. She simply wishes it wouldn’t lead Will so far away from her and their new life together.
The letters Emma and Will exchange pass through Iris’ capable hands on a daily basis. The residents of Franklin often wonder just how much their postmistress knows of what goes on in their isolated community. Iris, however, relies on the steady, reliable flow of the mail to ground her in the present. When the mail stops, or the machinery breaks down, she loses her ability to function. The contents of a letter are private, and yet so much can be told from the marks and scribbles on the outside of an envelope. Iris is an expert in reading the patterns in the post. She has no idea what to do when the usual patterns break down.
As Hitler’s grip on Europe tightens, Frankie dedicates herself to getting as much of the story of the migrating Jews as she can. Entrusted with the technological prototype of a modern tape recorder, and granted a three week ticket to the continent, Frankie hits the trains. “Get in, get the story, get out” Frankie is told by Murrow. Naturally, it’s not that simple.
Though the censors make it impossible to play back much of what she records, she has the feeling that her work is important, that something terrible is going to happen to the people who are being forced to relocate. When a young man without the correct paperwork is shot right in front of her, without hesitation, she realizes how important her work is. Shaken, she continues pushing the boundaries of audio preservation and broadcasting.
“What is your name? Where are you going? Where have you come from?” Frankie asks. She gives names to members of the nameless crowd, preserving a small piece of the memory of people who are wandering, trying to find a safe haven to settle, alone or with their families, separated from everything they knew. When the disks run out, Frankie begins recording over the audio she already has, creating an even more accurate representation of the cacophony of the voices around her.
Frustration, rage, and despair are everywhere, and Frankie’s energy wanes as she loses track of the days, even her location. She is isolated from her own community of journalists and surrounded by people who have been forcefully evicted from their own communities.
When Frankie emerges she has lost her drive to document, broken by the crush of injustice and infuriated by the lack of action on the west side of the Atlantic. She can’t even bring herself to share the voices she has recorded. Back in Franklin, the war edges closer and Emma longs for Will’s return. Directionless, it is Frankie who comes back to Franklin, bringing with her the reality of the war and the truth that everyone is affected by current events, even in the small village.
Blake’s story is a visceral telling of WWII-era human suffering during the Blitz and early stages of the Holocaust. The course of history is uncertain as the US hesitates, and the author does an excellent job of convincing us that anything could yet happen. As Iris, Frankie and Emma each deal with the war in their own, distinctive ways, it’s impossible not to empathize and wish for a different outcome. As more voices in Europe fall silent, it becomes even more important for the characters to remember those who have been lost, and to appreciate the community that they have.