“every story – love or war – is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.”
I tend to stay away from war novels – I just end up crying through them while I rail against violence and loss. Honestly, I am useless when it comes to war novels. That being said, I picked up The Postmistress back when it first came out – mostly because I loved the cover, and second because it was about women during the war – I can cry through loss, but crying through tonnes of violence just makes me real angry.
Also, when this first came out I was deep in Suite Française, a book I highly recommend (and yes, you will cry) and is apparently being adapted this year (yay!).
Anyways, here we go:
In 1940, Iris James is the postmistress in coastal Franklin, Massachusetts. Iris knows more about the townspeople than she will ever say, and believes her job is to deliver secrets. Yet one day she does the unthinkable: slips a letter into her pocket, reads it, and doesn’t deliver it.
Meanwhile, Frankie Bard broadcasts from overseas with Edward R. Murrow. Her dispatches beg listeners to pay heed as the Nazis bomb London nightly. Most of the townspeople of Franklin think the war can’t touch them. But both Iris and Frankie know better…
The Postmistress is a tale of two worlds-one shattered by violence, the other willfully naïve-and of two women whose job is to deliver the news, yet who find themselves unable to do so. Through their eyes, and the eyes of everyday people caught in history’s tide, it examines how stories are told, and how the fact of war is borne even through everyday life.
This novel is about, predominantly, how the war affected three women: Frankie Bard – our tough as nails modern woman, reporter on the war in London (and later France and Germany); Iris James – older woman who is a postmistress in Franklin MA, with a crush on local Harry Vale and a strict code of ethics and workmanship where it comes to her job; and Emma Fitch, the new young bride of the town doctor.
The novel opens with Iris travelling to Boston in order to visit a doctor to get a certificate (for the completely unsuspecting Harry) that she is “intact” … yeah, as in – her hymen still exists. TMI? And yet, for a lot of women, still applicable for some reason. She is an older woman, just moved to Franklin MA to fill in the postmaster position, and she has an attraction to older gentleman, Harry Vale – himself a veteran of WW1 . Her idea is that a man would want to know that his lady is … intact … if they start a relationship. Despite this inherent anti-feminist leaning, Iris is very progressive – she made her way in the world, fighting for a life for herself at a time when women didn’t have so many options. Her story parallels the American involvement in WW2 – first there’s a protectionist quality to her dealings, keeping things “in house” not being involved. Then by the end, we have an Iris that cares about the people she’s surrounded herself with, who cries with them and comforts them and lives with them in a way that makes her a part of the community at large.
And remember, her story starts with a trip to a doctor to inspect her hymen.
The novel is called “The Postmistress” and the idea that fascinates is the fact that – before telephones were so easy, and emails so simple – the communications between people, especially at long distances, depended on a mail service. And the mail service itself depended on people who you hoped were committed to being honest and hardworking. The fact that a person at a post office, through malice or negligence or just happenstance, could fail to deliver a letter to you was unthinkable – and yet, it must have happened. And this happenstance comes to a head throughout the story – with various opportunities Iris has to sugarcoat truth, to hide letters or forgo thee procedures. And it can be understandable – and that’s a scary bit. You understand the characters, why they would think about doing certain things. And moreso, you begin to understand that the title of “postmaster” is not necessarily a professional one. When Frankie is entrusted with a letter by happenstance, she takes on the mantel without the entirety of the procedures and formal understanding of her role, and this opens up a discussion in the book between the characters of Iris and Frankie and their respective roles in giving information to others.
Though, Frankie also gives information of a different variety.
Frankie is the most involved in the actual war – she’s in Europe during near the whole of the novel, starting in London and following through to occupied France. She’s the epitome of the modern woman during the 1940s – she takes ownership of her sexuality, she puts her career first and she has a mission that she follows. I listened to this book on audiotape and Frankie’s voice was the most changed between the beginning and the end of the novel – not surprisingly, again as she was the character in the thick of the war itself. She begins as an almost stoic reporter – someone who stands on the sidelines and just reports what she sees – though what she sees is pretty horrific. Through her eyes you stumble down into the bomb shelters, body pressed to other Londoners as you wait below the streets listening to the blitz above you. It’s terrifying and sad and very well written. When I visited London back in 2008, the Boy’s museum choice on Day 2 was the Imperial War Museum. We spent over 5 hours there (Goddess save me) looking at tanks and guns and more to the point of this review, a simulation of the blitz, complete with a shelter that smelled metallic and felt cold. Listening to the book made me think of this – only it was made worse because people whimpered around me as I listened, and Frankie herself began feeling the claustrophobia of being trapped. Wonderfully (horribly) written.
Frankie eventually decides, after an event that would spoil a good half of the book if I divulge, to really get into the war itself – by travelling to occupied France to record the stories of Jews she suspects are being persecuted on mass. The train travel, the hiding, the running and the people’s stories – I would really recommend listening to this book, the stories come alive – horribly and terrifyingly alive. The connections she makes are fleeting, the stories cut short and the brutality is unflinching.
This makes Frankie your man on the ground – the one who delivers letters that aren’t tucked into envelopes and sealed and mailed, but rather letters of war to those outside, a cry for help and understanding. It’s a powerful dynamic, particularly when contrasted with Emma Fitch’s desire to stay as far away from the war as possible.
To the side of these two independent women who deal with real world situations including life and death, falls Emma’s character. She’s a doctor’s wife, with a sad past, who thinks she finally found her forever home. She wants so very much to be simple – to cook, clean, take walks by the dunes, and have a family with her young husband. The war interrupts this, it barges in and makes her feel disconnected to her life and her story is frustrating and sad – both because of her unnerving ability to ignore things around her, and because of her heart wrenching desire, so palatable, to have that normal life, despite anything that could get between her and it.
All in all, the book will leave you teary-eyed and sad, your chest tight with too much information, too many stories, but it is a wonderful read, taking you deep into the war through the eyes of three American women in very different places in their lives. I highly recommend it.