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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Postmistress’

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THE POSTMISTRESS
By Sarah Blake
Putnam, $25.95
336 pages

This is a wrenching, beautifully written book that contrasts the atmosphere of small-town America in the 1940s with the plight of Europe, a continent being engulfed by the Nazi terror.

Sarah Blake recalls the voice of Edward R. Murrow, the CBS correspondent who tried to awaken a sleeping America to the threat from abroad. It is he who inspires the moving words of her character Frankie Bann, a young female reporter who finds herself drawn into the emotional maelstrom of World War II. In 1940, Frankie is reporting on the London Blitz under Murrow's direction, telling the stories of the people like the milkman struggling to maintain a supply of glass milk bottles for his business when his customers were likely to be blown up by morning, and the touching sight of a pair of shoes left alone and untouched in a bombed-out shop window.

She also tells the story of the little boy who is her neighbor and who runs out of a bomb shelter crying for his mother and finds she has been killed in their wrecked home. Frankie warns that war had demolished the theory of how to protect against any threat at the door because the real danger could amount to nothing more than turning left instead of right on a street corner as bombs smashed into London.

Her call on Americans to pay attention to what was going on beyond the world they knew is heard with mixed results across the Atlantic in the Massachusetts port town of Franklin, the setting of the story. Some residents complain that she should "get control of herself" while others like Harry Vale, the town mechanic, look out across the sea and worry about German U-boats. One decides to do something. Local doctor Will Fitch, his feelings already torn by the death of one of his patients, is so stricken by the news of the nightmare exploding abroad that he ignores the pleas of his wife, Emma, and goes to a London hospital to help the victims of the air raids.

And also in Franklin is Iris James, the postmistress who presides with a peculiar power over communications, making sure letters go where they are supposed to, and sometimes using her own discretion about a delay. It is she to whom Fitch entrusts a letter to be delivered to his wife if he should die, and it is she who does not deliver it until his son has been born. In the kind of brutal twist perhaps peculiar to war, Fitch is killed not by a bomb, but in a minor traffic accident that happens shortly after he meets Frankie the reporter in an air- raid shelter where he talks passionately about the war and his wife and how he cannot bring himself to go home to safety.

Frankie watches him die in the street and keeps the daily letter he had written to Emma and asked her to mail. She is unable to send it, keeping it as she is assigned to Europe to write about the plight of the refugees fleeing the German juggernaut. She witnesses the shooting of a young Jew dragged from his place next to her on a train and is tortured by concern that her presence had drawn attention to him.

She watches the speechless misery of a little boy as his mother explains to him that he must go to a safe haven without her, even without the comforting presence of Frankie, who has befriended him and who finally watches him trudge off alone, "small shoulders set."

Frankie records interviews with trapped and doomed people across Europe and goes back to New York to tell her editor there, "What I've got are seventy lost voices ... and no one is listening." Psychologically battered, she leaves her job and seeks refuge of her own at home in Massachusetts. Predictably, she winds up in Franklin, where she finds little boys throwing stones at a local German Jewish refugee who fears his wife is either dead or in a Nazi death camp. She also finds Emma, the doctor's wife, and the author dexterously winds the threads of her plot into a sad yet oddly satisfying conclusion. Ms. Blake's writing skill makes her book poignant without being mawkish. She acknowledges and understands the difficulty that Americans had in recognizing the importance of their reaction to a war so far away and so unlikely, especially in a quiet seaside town.

The author captures the contrast between an easy indifference and a reluctant call to action. And she writes with tenderness of the friendship that grows between Frankie and Emma, and the moment when Iris the postmistress judges that it is time that the doctor's widow should read his last letter, sitting within the warm circle of the friends who knew them both. Ms. Blake has written a book that is not only haunting in its evocation of a past world but a bleak reminder of what that world was and how it came about.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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