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August 16, 2010

Book Review - The Postmistress by Sarah Blake



The first thing that struck me about this book was how detailed and graphic the description of London and Europe in World War II.  I was born in 1983, so I’ve never had the experience of living in a country where war has caused an entire population to change habits and lifestyle.  I am unfamiliar of a time when the government forces you to ration and hold back for the greater good.  This book encapsulates all the senses of what it was like to be alive during a war.  That part is amazing.

The book follows three female characters simultaneously during the Blitz and right after the US was attacked at Pearl Harbor, but before the US had actually gotten involved.  There is a postmistress (hence the name) who has just been transferred to a new post in Massachusetts, an American radio reporter who has come to London, a young woman, recently married, living in MA, as well as a slew of minor characters that really give richness and depth to the story, including Edward R. Murrow and some nameless, faceless travelers that could encapsulate the feeling of WWII.

The first three-quarters of the book are fantastic.  The author takes you into a world that is scary and real, and even scarier because at one point because it was a reality for millions of people.

The American reporter in Europe, Frankie Bard, has, in my opinion, the most interesting story.  She eventually travels on the trains throughout Europe and begins to glimpse what Hitler is actually doing to the Jews.

The young, newly married, woman, Emma, in the States sees the war from a completely different perspective.  She keeps seeing family and friends disappear to the war and watches people get more and more paranoid.

The postmistress, Iris, is the thread that stitches all the stories together, but she has a serious dilemma.  The reader grapples with this dilemma throughout the book.  How much power does a head of a post office have.  Though not legal, a postmaster or mistress has the power to control communication, especially during the war; when other forms of communication were severely limited.  The book discusses what a person can do with that power.

I can only endorse this book by 75%.  Unfortunately, the end falls apart.  It gets a bit talky and it feels like Blake loses her focus.  But for all the talkiness and the indirection at the end, this book is well worth reading, if only for the absolutely amazing prose describing the war.  This book has completely informed how I think about war, and that, in my opinion, is completely worth a read.

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