The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress combines the quirkiness of Anne Tyler's novels with the historical relevance of good World War II fiction. It tells the story of three women (and assorted men), whose vastly different lives intertwine because of the delivery, and the "non-delivery," of a letter.

Frankie Bard, the narrator, is a fictional character, a composite of the women reporters who worked under Edward R. Murrow in England during 1940 and 1941. Frankie, as she delivers her radio broadcasts from England during the Blitz, and later, as she travels through Europe with the first recorder, the reader is moved to tears by her heart-wrenching stories of Jews fleeing the Nazis.

Meanwhile, back in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the residents listen to Frankie's radio broadcasts, trying not to face the horror of what they hear. Iris James, the postmistress, obsessively keeps order in the post office for which she works. She watches over people as she makes sure their mail is delivered. Under her care is a letter, written by Dr. Fitch, to be delivered by her should he die. Also, under her care, comes a letter from the landlady where Dr. Fitch roomed. It is the letter that reports him missing, the letter Iris chooses not to deliver to his wife, Emma.

Emma Fitch's quiet world collapses when her doctor- husband volunteers to work in London during the height of The Blitz. There, in a bomb shelter, he meets Frankie, and shares his feelings of self-worth with her. Unlike Frankie, who is numbed by the death and destruction around her, Dr. Fitch feels suddenly alive. After blaming himself for the death of a mother in childbirth, he is invigorated by his utter lack of control over events. Here, he feels he is making a difference and feels alive.

Frankie argues with him, indicating that life is often determined by whether we turn left rather than right. It is purely meaningless coincidence. His death- from injuries incurred by being hit by a cab-substantiates this very fact. Before he dies, Dr. Fitch gives Frankie a letter for his wife--a letter which belies the emotional distance he feels.

This letter becomes Frankie's reason for returning to Cape Cod. She wants to personally deliver it to his wife, and tell her of Dr. Fitch's fate. Frankie has left her journalism job, thinking her radio broadcasts futile in getting America to listen and intervene. She returns to this country suffering from emotional exhaustion and psychological trauma. She relives the war though nightmares, and re-plays the voices of those she witnessed killed or suspects perished. She listens to those voices night after night, watching the house of Emma Fitch.

Eventually, she befriends Emma, who long suspects her as a harbinger of bad news. Iris, who reminds one of a nicer "Olive Kitteridge," dislikes Frankie intensely. She knows Frankie doesn't belong in Cape Cod, and she, too, thinks her a harbinger of doom.

The lives of the women eventually come together, and redemption, at least on a personal level, is achieved. Blake has done a masterful job, using broadcasts that were true to fact, in depicting events leading up to our military involvement. But her gift is in evoking the lives of those affected by World War II, and in showing us, in Frankie's words, "the parts around the edges."

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