PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The written word can be concealed, delayed, or misdirected. It is the human voice which haunts and lingers.


The Postmistress

Publisher: Amy Einhorn
Length: 336 pages
Author: Sarah Blake
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-02
Amazon

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.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.