The Postmistress - Sarah Blake On the surface, the novel revolves around the three female protagonists: the postmaster Iris, the doctor’s young wife Emma, both living in a small American town Franklin on Cape Cod, and the American radio journalist Frankie, reporting on the Blitz from London. The year is 1940. Nazis are tearing Europe apart, while in a small town, America, everything is status-quo.
The book blurb coyly states that it’s a story of undelivered letter. This is a blatant lie, created by a marketing department to attract readers. But it attracts the wrong readers. The tale of a misplaced letter is just one little wrinkle, taking only a few pages, while the real story, the tragedy of Jews in Europe ravaged by Hitler, emerges almost against the writer’s will.
Ultimately, The Postmistress is one of the best Holocaust novels I’ve ever read, all the more poignant because it is told from a non-Jewish point of view. And it is a tale of loneliness. Everyone is lonely there, in Franklin or in Europe, alone against the barbarity of war, just as the Jews of Europe stood alone against the killer Nazis. In few other books, the soul-devouring loneliness of the Jewish nation has been portrayed so well.
It’s also a tale of complicity, personified by the town of Franklin. The author paints Franklin’s population as petty people with trifling problems. Iris is getting a certificate of virginity to present to her sweetheart. Emma bemoans her orphan status despite her husband’s love. Their neighbors gossip and watch movies. The town, colorful and priggish, resembles a glossy postcard. Its only purpose is to serve as a backdrop for the action, a litmus paper to test humanity.
The action itself, in stark black and white, erupts across the Atlantic, where war rages and bombs devastate London. Frankie is trying to raise awareness of the war, but America doesn’t want to listen. “We don’t want to fight the foreign wars,” the good people of Franklin say. Occasionally, their chatting sounds like a macabre anecdote. “If those Jews are in camps in Europe, they must’ve done something wrong,” blurts one matron.
The juxtaposition between the complacent America and the wrecked Europe becomes almost unbearable, when Frankie grabs a chance to report from occupied France. For three weeks, she rides the French railways, witnessing as the Jews, singly and in groups, are herded towards the dead end, the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
There are few overt atrocities, only a couple of shots fired on the pages, but the underlying terror mounts despite the intervening placid scenes in Franklin. Before her assignment in France, Frankie thought that if she could just tell the truth, she might make a difference. But she can’t report this story: she doesn’t know the truth, and the dread in her heart can’t find its way to the radio waves. The “permanent pogrom” in Europe is too much for one lonely American reporter.
Blake’s literary prose creates an atmosphere of palpable tension. In places, the author even sacrifices her characters and plot to the beauty of her elaborate expressions and flowery metaphors. But the literary frills only highlight the brutality and hopelessness of the war.
Highly recommended to anyone interested in history of the WWII and the Holocaust.