I’ve had Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress on the bedside table for more than a year, waiting for life to slow down so that I could read it. It kept getting pushed to the wayside by the famed tyranny of the urgent until I finally realized my reasons for needing to read it were of the urgent type. This book is set during World War 2, some of it in London during the Blitz, and as I am needing to finish the book I am writing next (it’s due on Feb 1!) and it’s also set during World War 2 during the Blitz, I knew I needed to cast aside all other books and read it. I am so glad I did. Not just because the story answered some lingering research questions, but because the prose was so delicious.
The Postmistress is about three women, really, in a time of war. There is Iris, the postmistress; Emma, the young doctor’s new wife; and Frankie, the radio correspondent on assignment in London during the Blitz of 1940. The book is less about letters and the post office and more about what we might do to withhold truth from someone we think is better off not knowing it. I love how Sarah Blake begins an interview with The Help’s Kathryn Stockett. Stockett asked her to describe where the idea for the book came from and here is Blake’s answer:
“The Postmistress began with a picture that sprang into my head one day, of a woman sorting the mail in the back of a post office, quietly slipping a letter into her pocket instead of delivering it. Immediately, questions flooded forward: Whose letter was it? Why on earth would she choose to pocket it? What havoc would be wreaked by not delivering a letter? As I answered those questions, Emma and Will and their love story, and the workings of the small town in which Iris was the center, came to life. One hundred pages into that draft, Frankie Bard arrived on the bus, out of the blue. I had no idea who she was or why she was there, except that one character referred to her as a war correspondent without a war. That was interesting, I thought. By this time I had decided to set the novel in the late thirties, early forties. It was 2001 and I was living in Washington, D.C., after the attacks of 9/11, and I was very preoccupied with trying to make sense of what was happening around me. Were we in danger? Would we go to war? The parallels between that uncertain time and the time before the United States entered World War II resonated with me, and what was a novel about accident and fate and the overlapping of lives deepened into a novel with war as its backdrop, which asked questions about how we understand ourselves to be in a historical moment and what we do when we are called to it.”
I love this answer because this is often how stories come to me, vaporous and barely there, but then I imagine someone and I see them doing what they do everyday, only today is different. And then I just start asking why.
And thus begins the overlapping of lives that is every story I love and every story I try to write.
Here are some great quotes from the book. If you are in a blazing hurry, wait until you have time for it. This is a story to be read when you have time to think and ponder…
“Every story – love or war – is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.”
“Some stories don’t get told. Some stories you hold on to. To stand and watch and hold it in your arms was not cowardice. To look straight at the beast and feel its breath on your flanks and not to turn–one could carry the world that way.”
“They sat together, the four of them, a little longer, before Harry rose slowly to his feet. It was Thursday. It was the end of the afternoon. It was time to pick up and carry on to the other side of the day.”
“She imagined she could pull Time like taffy, stretching it longer and longer between her hands until the finest point had been reached, the point just before breaking, and she could live there. A point at the center of time with no going forward, no going back. Clasped in this way, without speaking, walking into no discernible ending, she could almost believe they tread on time.”
There is so much more like about Sarah Blake’s mastery with words. If you’ve read The Postmistress, I’d love to hear your thoughts…