” She watched it all. And she never said a word. The whole thing depended on her silence. She was aware that no one else in the town might think of her in this way. It beggared belief that an unmarried woman her age would be convulsed by a desire to poke about in other people’s secrets, never reading their postcards, never noting return addresses. (11,148)
The Postmistress tells the story of three women whose lives could not be more different as war rages in Europe in 1940. Iris James arrives in Franklin, Massachusetts to take up the job as the postmaster that townfolks doubt if she could mater. Post office, Iris believes, is where thick chaos of humanity is rendered into order. Since all communications in town pass through her, the whole postal system works on the merit of efficiency and trust. Iris believes her job is to deliver secrets with discretion, until one day she slips a letter in her pocket, reads it, and keeps it to herself, undelivered.
One day someone you saw every day was there and the next day he was not. This was the only way Frankie had found to report the Blitz. The small policeman on the corner, the grocer with a bad eye, the people you walked to work with, in the shops, on the bus: the people you didn’t know but who walked the same route as you, who wove the anonymous fabric of your life . . . Once they were here. And I saw them. (8,123)
Arriving in town on the same bus with Iris James is Emma Trask, who marries the town’s doctor Will Fitch. She listens to all the radio broadcasts from London with her husband, who lives in the shadow of his father’s ghost. The collapse of the Fitch family’s fortune was partially responsible for ruining the town during Great Depression. That a patient—a mother at child birth—dies under his care provokes a change in Dr. Fitch and a determination to go over to Europe. Resentful to any news of the war raging across the Atlantic, Emma fortifies herself with thoughts that he will be alive. Meanwhile, the town mechanic, Harry Vale, is on the watch out for German U-boats.
That she’d get over here and find the single story that would make the world sit up and listen? These are the Jews of Europe. Here is what is happening. Pay attention. But there was no story . . . There was no story over here that she could tell from beginning until the end. The story of the Jews lay in the edges around what could be told. (16,219)
In London, Frankie Bard works with Edward R. Murrow (a historical figure), who imposes strictures and protocol on reporting that she finds tiresome. She takes upon herself a mission to discover and reveal the truth about the Jewish people and stir her listeners to action. With three women, all in different roles during WWII, the result is a novel that draws on history and historical figures but doesn’t present the atrocious facts of war. Instead The Postmistress follows Frankie Bard’s conception of a news story and herein lies the beauty of the novel. As the journalist records random fragments of refugees’ voices, she sees the war unfolding from a different perspective. Rather than finding one story that would capture the world, the random coming and going invoke her to think about all the parts in a story she never sees. It makes her wonder what happens to all the people after the story she reports ends. The truth of the war often emerges in the edges, and the emotional impact staggers as Frankie stops looking for the story and only ponders at the fragility of life and caprice of fate.
Those were the voices of the Jews of Europe. They are on the trains tonight. They are traveling even now. Alive for now. Right now— (16:240)
The Postmistress is ingenious in its format. Frankie’s development guides the heart of the story, functioning as a lens through which the richness and nuances of the other characters are amplified. Not only does the story’s beginning gains relevance and emotional insight as Frankie’s own self-enlightenment puts Iris and Emma’s lives into focus, she also bears a piece of news that she finds difficult to deliver. Although Iris James and Frankie Bard have conflicting principle at their jobs—one requires absolute infallibility and the other relies on a story gone astray (that is why no news is good news), they both confront the challenge of delivering news and protecting someone they care for from hurt.
368 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/
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