Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Postmistress

We really liked this book. There were several themes, but we felt the key theme was randomness - the randomness of everything. Mary read the passage where Frankie ranked all the random occurrences using the word if, and then made the word if into a single paragraph.

Cathy and I both felt bad for Harry's ending. A review for Entertainment Weekly said, "The ending is a bit of miss. One final tragedy seems unnecessarily cruel. But in a novel about war, perhaps that is the point."

The title would lead you to believe that the book was about Iris James, but it was really Frankie Bard's story. Both Cathy and I didn't realize the introduction was Frankie speaking - we thought it was Iris, and that led to a false start. The two did share a transgression however. They both had a letter they withheld. Iris's entire life was about structure, order and following rules so this was uncharacteristic for her, as uncharacteristic as chopping down the flagpole.

Frankie also withheld a letter but with the intention of delivering it personally. It was never delivered and that was uncharacteristic for her as she had espoused telling the truth as it appears. Her experience and helplessness in trying to record the voices of Jews being round up produced what Cathy called shell shock. Her desire was to get people to pay attention. She says to Will, "Whatever is coming does not just come, as you say. It's helped by people willfully looking away. People who develop the habit of swallowing lies rather than the truth. The minute you start thinking something else, then you've stopped paying attention - and paying attention is all we've got."

She wanted people to see the story and everything and every assignment was to produce a result. The train ride left her desperate - all that record of death of people she had just met. Recording their voices went no further than her until Otto in Franklin. She wanted people to respond and when it didn't happen, came home to recover, get her bearings and deliver the letter. Cathy thought she should have steamed it open to realize that it was a loving message, but Wilma wasn't so sure. That would require her to reveal that Will felt fulfilled in London and wasn't sure he would go home. And then he stepped into the street, looking the wrong way. If.

From the beginning of our discussion today, Cathy was flummoxed by the title. Why did Blake choose to keep this one after she learned that there is no such thing as a postmistress and especially since this wasn't a story about Iris James, the postmaster of Franklin. Carolyn wondered if perhaps Blake left her working title in place to cover both Frankie and Iris as carriers of withheld letters, both postmistresses.

We talked a lot about hows news was delivered and received during this emerging technology of radio and compared it to the instantaneous and ubiquitous news of today. We asked if more information causes people to be any more engaged then when they relied on a single broadcast. Mary told us how frustrated her son is in Afghanistan where American troops are being fired on by the very army they're tasked with training. This conversation continued for at least a half hour, but because it wasn't far from the points that Blake had raised, there were several call-backs to the book.

I thought about the book on my way home and realized that the strong characters were so strong that they dominated our conversation. I think we missed something by not evaluating well-educated Emma and Will, both weak and lacking confidence, in contract to Jim and Maggie, of the fateful baby, who lived simply yet purposely.

I always say I don't like historical fiction but this is one of my favorite books in a long time. A reviewer from Library Journal said, "Verdict: Even readers who don't think they like historical novels will love this one and talk it up to their friends. Highly recommended for all fans of beautifully wrought fiction." I agree!

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