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A Star for Mrs. Blake

A Star for Mrs. Blake

4.0 21
by April Smith

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An emotionally charged historical novel based on the Gold Star Mothers.

Cora Blake never dreamed she’d go to Paris. She’s hardly ever left the small fishing village where she grew up. Yet in the summer of 1931, she is invited to travel to France with hundreds of other Gold Star Mothers, courtesy of the U.S. government, to say goodbye to their


An emotionally charged historical novel based on the Gold Star Mothers.

Cora Blake never dreamed she’d go to Paris. She’s hardly ever left the small fishing village where she grew up. Yet in the summer of 1931, she is invited to travel to France with hundreds of other Gold Star Mothers, courtesy of the U.S. government, to say goodbye to their fallen sons, American casualties of World War I who were buried overseas.

Chaperoned by a dashing West Point officer, Cora’s group includes the wife of an immigrant chicken farmer; a housemaid; a socialite; a former tennis star in precarious mental health; and dozens of other women from all over the country. Along the way, the women will forge lifelong friendships as they face a death, a scandal, and a secret revealed.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Smith’s sixth novel, a departure from her Ana Grey thrillers, presents the touching story, set in the 1930s, of Gold Star Mothers—the mothers of fallen U.S. service members—visiting their sons’ graves in France. Cora Blake lives in Maine, where she is raising her three nieces after her sister’s death. Struggling from day to day to survive the Depression, Cora learns of a chance, courtesy of the U.S. government, to see the last resting place of her son, killed in WWII. She ends up being the glue that holds together “Party A,” which includes, along with their escorts Second Lt. Thomas Hammond and nurse Lily Barnett, a Boston socialite, an Irish maid, and, temporarily, an African-American woman. The trip’s organizers soon correct this “mistake,” but the woman’s white replacement proves mentally unstable. During the trip, Cora meets down-on-his luck reporter Griffin Reed, who was badly disfigured while covering the war, and whose investigative skills bring her a gift beyond her hopes. Smith captures the mothers’ interactions in beautiful detail and delves into the government’s not-entirely-altruistic reasons for sponsoring the trip. Several plot threads, however, are unresolved, leaving the reader wanting more at the end of this captivating read. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Literary Agency. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
During the early 1930s, the U.S. government arranged for grieving "Gold Star Mothers" to visit the French burial sites of their sons killed during World War I. This historical fiction by mystery author Smith (White Shotgun, 2011, etc.) concerns a woman named Cora Blake and her travel companions. Plucky, no-nonsense Cora is a librarian from Deer Isle, Maine, and a single mother of a son, when she gets the government invitation in 1931. She becomes the member coordinator and organizes the banally diverse group of women assigned to travel together: Jewish Minnie Siebert, who must defy her husband to travel from their farm in Bangor; Irish Catholic Boston housemaid Katie McDonald, who lost two sons in the war; and well-to-do society matriarch Mrs. Bobbie Olsen, who, like Cora, has a secret she's not telling. The fifth member of the party, Wilhelmina Russell, does not respond to Cora's letters, but Mrs. Russell does show up to travel on the train from Boston to New York. Only this is Selma Russell, a black seamstress, stereotypically large and comic—discomforting whiffs of race and class snobbery filter throughout the novel. A snafu has mixed up the two Mrs. Russells, and Wilhelmina, a deeply disturbed middle-class housewife recently released from a mental hospital for the journey, has ended up in Harlem. Assigned to chaperone the women, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond fixes the mix-up, with the help of nurse Lily Barnett, by resegregating the women before they board the ship for Europe. By the time they reach Europe, Cora and Bobbie have bonded, while romance between Thomas and Lily is palely flickering. In Paris, Cora meets journalist Griffin Reed. Badly wounded and disfigured while covering the war, he sees the possibility of a story in the women's journey. Throw in Reed's hedonistic lover and a nasty senior officer who resents Thomas' privilege, and the trip goes more than slightly awry. While the line-by-line writing is engaging, this take on historic events is made shallow by broad brush strokes and lots of heartstring pulling.

Like most of his countrymen, George Picquart is convinced that Captain Alfred Dreyfus has guilty of espionage, but as the recently promoted chief of French counterespionage, he is also in a unique position to reevaluate his views. His chance discovery of documents stolen from the German embassy convinced him that Dreyfus had not been the traitor spy, leading him to secretly reopen a case that the government had wished was forever closed. Based on an important historical episode, this novel carries not only that stamp of authenticity, but also the talented storytelling ability of Robert Harris, the author of Pompeii and Fatherland.

From the Publisher
A Star for Mrs. Blake is a beautifully written, meticulously researched slice of American history. April Smith’s poignant and tender story of five courageous World War I Gold Star mothers’ amazing journey across the sea is one you will never forget.” —Fannie Flagg

“[Smith] brings graceful life to a wrongly forgotten historical footnote.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Detailed and colorful . . . A story of America—rich in the lives of each of the characters.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Vivid and utterly unforgettable..” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Compelling. . . . A first-rate novel that is well worth reading.” —The Huffington Post

“Moving and surprising. . . . Smith, a lucid writer with a detective’s eye for detail, doesn’t let us forget the painful event that launched her heroine’s journey.” —BookPage

 “A sensitively drawn portrait of an obscure but consequential event. It is also a story that highlights the power of female community, how that bond can help mitigate even a grief that has no end.” —WBUR.org

“April Smith has written a beautiful and unforgettable novel about five Gold Star Mothers whose stories are both personal and universal. Writing A Star for Mrs. Blake must have been a labor of love and it shows on every page. Everyone who has served or is serving in the military, and also their families and friends, should read this book.” —Nelson DeMille

“Smith writes with great depth of detail and of emotion, giving voice to . . . [these] Gold Star Mothers who traveled from America to their sons’ graves in France.” —Historical Novel Society 

“Riveting. . . Smith has told this story with memorable characters and truly beautiful writing.” —Hudson Valley News

“Smith captures the mothers’ interactions in beautiful detail.” —Publishers Weekly
“Captivating and enlightening. . . . A heartfelt glimpse into a little-known episode in U.S. history.” —Booklist (starred review)

Library Journal
After losing her son in World War I, small-town librarian Cora Blake is surprised over a decade later to receive a letter from the U.S. government inviting her to go to Europe to visit his grave as part of a "Gold Star Mother" tour. Looking forward to the adventure, Cora also hopes that she and the other mothers will be able to find the closure that has eluded them for so long. A chance encounter with an embittered journalist gives her the opportunity to tell her story to the world and leads her to discover some unexpected truths about the long-term legacy of the war. VERDICT What initially feels like a straightforward and heartwarming road trip novel becomes more complicated as the women draw nearer to their destination and squabbles over class and personality differences give way to increasing criticism of the government and military bureaucracy. Though some later plot developments are a bit far-fetched, Smith, in a change of pace from her "FBI Special Agent Ana Grey" thrillers (Good Morning, Killer), artfully maintains a generally warm tone while also allowing her characters to ask hard questions about the war and its consequences.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the hardcover edition



Cora Blake was certainly not planning on going to Paris that spring. Or ever in her lifetime. She was the librarian in a small town on the tip of an island off the coast of Maine, which didn’t mean she’d never traveled. She did spend two years at Colby College in Waterville and visited family in Portland, went to Arizona once, and if you counted yachting, knew most of the New England coast. Her mother had been the great adventurer, married to a sea captain who’d taken her all around the world. Cora was born off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, which might account for her venturesome spirit, but now she roamed only in books. Summer people from North Carolina and Boston would stop by the quaint old library building to chat, and wonder how she could stand to live in such a tiny place with those terrible winters.

“I have everything I want right on the island,” she’d say. “We’re so off the beaten path, you’ve got to be satisfied with the way it is.”

Since the crash of ’twenty-nine the county had stopped paying her salary, but Cora kept on librarying anyway, two days and one morning a week, for free. She did it for the sociability and out of duty to her readers, but she was as hard up for cash as anybody. That’s why when the whistle started blowing at the break of dawn out at Healy’s cannery, it sounded to Cora Blake like Gabriel himself swinging out on the horn.

It was 5:00 a.m. in the pit of February. The cannery had been silent for more than two weeks, but now the whistle was loud and clear, piercing the bleat of the foghorn. Wake up! it shrilled. There’s work! and throughout the village women rose up out of warm beds wondering how much work there would be and how long they might be gone doing it. The length of the job depended on the catch. Clams, as long as they’re watered down at night, will be fine until the next day—but fish has to be put up right away or it will spoil. They could end up packing twenty-four hours straight, which nobody would moan about at a time when the Great Depression had taken away so many jobs, but they had just thirty minutes to dress and put out food for the family before the second whistle started up, scolding them to get out the door. By then the worker-transportation bus would be leaving from in front of the post office, and if you missed it, well, good night and good luck.

In the top bedroom of one of the old stonecutter’s cottages facing the harbor—mustard-yellow, with squares for windows like a child would draw—Cora was rapidly calculating four meals ahead. Life had changed since she’d left Tide’s End Farm, a hundred acres that had been in the family since 1759. Five years ago, her mother, Luella, and older sister, Avis, had passed from cholera, and Cora moved to town in order to look after her nieces, Sarah, fourteen, Laura, twelve, and Kathleen, ten. Now the farm lay derelict and far from her mind. There were the three girls plus her brother-in-law to cook for, and all she had in quantity was beans.

Most people can’t tell the difference between one bean and another. Most don’t give a hoot. North of Ellsworth anyway, a lot of folks were making it through hard times on the Marafax beans supplied by the federal government, chewy amber-colored little things that prudent types cooked only with salt. Cora had gone up to the city and gotten some, along with margarine you had to mix by hand with yellow coloring, so it didn’t look like dental wax. They still had turnips and squash in the cellar hay mow.

She woke Sarah, who was sprawled beside her in a dead pile under the quilts, and gave her the lowdown. Aunt Cora was going on a pay streak and, as the oldest, Sarah would be in charge of the household, most of which was laid up with flu. Sarah didn’t move. She wasn’t sick, but her eyes remained shut on principle.

“Can I make biscuits?” she asked.

“I don’t want to see a speck of wasted flour when I get home,” Cora warned. “And no cigarettes. Don’t think I won’t know, because I can smell them on you.”

The girl uttered something befitting a half-asleep adolescent, but Cora was already across the frigid bedroom. It was impossible to keep warm without coal. Her brother-in-law, Big Ole Uncle Percy, had started cutting wood off someone else’s parcel, but what could you do? Rags stuffed under the doors did nothing to stop the glacial drafts that swept down from Nova Scotia. She looked to the window to gauge the day; the glass was scrolled with the roseate frost of dawn. Outside the snow was fresh and it was well below freezing, but Cora was cheered to see there would be sun.

She pulled a pair of woolen stockings from the cedar chest. They had been patched up so often they had acquired the combined character of the three generations who had worn them, which meant they belonged to nobody, and were seen by Cora not with sentiment, but as a handy something to be pulled over her shoes, followed by galoshes that had been resewn where the rubber split.

Entering the icy kitchen, Cora was grateful for the millionth time to her pragmatic mother. She had sailed through the Panama Canal as Captain Frederick Harding’s wife on the windjammer Lara Leigh, delivering molasses and timber and sometimes chartered for the pleasure of wealthy businessmen in Florida, but it was hardly as glamorous as it sounded. Her duties were to cook, sew, and clean the cabin, and to be pleasant company for the wives at the yacht clubs where they moored. When they returned to Tide’s End Farm, Luella raised Cora and her sister with the self-reliance she’d learned at sea. She taught them, for example, that no matter if you were tired and falling off your feet, you always got the stove ready before you went to bed. Mostly it was an island tradition for the man of the house to lay the fire, but Captain Harding would be gone on voyages for months, and so it became a mother-daughter ritual every night to whittle sticks of winter pine into clean-smelling curls.

“No need for kerosene a’tall,” her mother would say with satisfaction.

When she was little, it was Cora’s job to stack the kindling neatly in the fire box, a thing she loved to do, because once the iron door was latched, the day would come to a quiet close with the reassuring knowledge that Mother had taken care of today, tonight, and tomorrow. Every night she did the same for her nieces, using the sharp old jackknife to turn out perfect spirals before their captivated eyes. It still gave her a feeling of being in safekeeping. And in the morning the stove always lit with just one match.

She got the kettle steaming and this she poured into another kettle of those reliable beans. She lit a lantern on the oilcloth-covered table. The light fell on the lush jacket illustration of Treasure Island, which was sitting on top of the pile she’d brought home for the kids who were sick in bed. One thing about librarying is you can take home whatever you please off the shelves, and since she was the only one keeping the place open, Cora felt perfectly in the right doing so. Treasure Island was one of her favorites. She dragged her fingertips over the book as if to take it all in, even the feel of the type. She knew the story by heart—her father had read it out loud to her, she’d read it to her son, Sammy, and later on he’d read it back to Grandpa Harding—about young Jim Hawkins and his indomitable mother, who runs the Admiral Benbow Inn. One day a mysterious old sailor named Pew shows up to end his days in peace by the sea, but he’s given the terrible “black spot,” a warning that means death, and sure enough, the pirates attack the inn, and Jim and his mother barely escape—

The second whistle startled her back to life, and she hastily swallowed a last bite of corn bread. What had she been dreaming of? She checked to be sure the beans were simmering nicely, took her mackinaw from its peg, and closed the kitchen door firmly against the wind.

Her eyes watered as the cold hit. It wasn’t just the cold, but the blinding attack of whiteness that mirrored off the ice-encrusted snow. Navigating the granite slope from the doorstep to Main Street was perilous, especially buffeted by a screaming northeast wind. She caught on to a clothesline and edged down. Rows of whitecaps marched across the harbor. Icicles hung off the pier, sharp as staves. The frost-blue sky wheeled above, hard in the light of a heatless sun. Her nose ran and teeth ached from the bitter temperature. Nothing moved in the village except snow-smoke billowing off the roofs of the chain of severe wooden cottages implausibly anchored to a finger of rock. Their closed white faces took the pummeling directly off the ocean and said nothing. It was as if everything had frozen into a crystal of itself and Cora Blake was the only warm and living thing.

Then she saw that she had missed the bus. Because there was certainly no bright red little puffer waiting in front of the post office; no black exhaust stains on the snow, or tire tracks, either, had she been composed enough to notice. Cora almost cried. Being late, she had just thrown away a dollar and a half, tossed it to the breeze. Marooned at the snowbound post office with no way to get out to the factory, she raged at her dawdling over a child’s book, numb fingers clenched inside the pockets of the plaid mackinaw so worn it might have come from the Scottish Highlands with her forebears.

Hell, she would walk.

The shore road was open to rolling gusts off the harbor that pierced the poor wool of the ancient mackinaw and swept clouds of dry snow off the wooden sidewalk ahead. A skiff had broken loose, tossed up and smashed against the wharf. But the square-built lobster boats rode the twenty-foot waves like smart-aleck tough guys, chins out. Cora put one foot in front of the other, eyes fixed on the crest of Peaks Hill, methodically getting past the hooded shapes of the variety store, barbershop, the notions and yard goods store—all shuttered with snow—the sawmill, the Odd Fellows Hall out on the bend, until the village was at her back and the wind died wailing in the spruce.

It would be deep snowfall all the way to the point. Cora was hoping for an easy trek on the tire tracks left by the bus, but there were none—erased by whirling devils of ice particles? Or had she gotten off the road entirely? She took in the silence, unafraid. It went with a certain hum in her head that was always there, a nameless sense of direction that seemed to come from the earth up through the soles of her feet. She became aware of jaybirds. Evergreens standing in unspoiled snow up to their skirts. She noticed a patch of shadows, dug up by something, possibly moose. Closer, she saw they were shoe prints, multiple tracks heading east. Cora thrashed forward, snow sliding down the galoshes. At the top of Peaks Hill she saw a small group of cannery workers trudging through the endless white like anxious refugees. By the time she’d reached them, she was sweating in the woolens and couldn’t feel her toes.

They were women dressed as she was, in heavy dark skirts down to their ankles and hodgepodge layers of tattered coats.

“Where is the bus?” Cora asked, breathless.

“Ain’t no bus. Not no more,” snapped Essie Jordan. With her long bland face sticking out beneath a cap that was crocheted with green filigree, she resembled a bunch of celery.

“What happened to it?”

“Mr. Healy says gasoline’s too expensive. So we walk.”

“We walk,” echoed Cora, grateful to join the march of plain-featured, hardworking ladies in homespun clothes that smelled of cow dung and pine pitch, ages twelve to sixty, trooping along in the snow to do the filthy factory work of the republic—slow, resolute, keeping in a tight group to buffer the wind, the young ones breaking trail for the rest.

It was another mile to where the continental bedrock ends, a rocky ledge that slopes into the water, the cannery looking like it was about to slide off the tip. She thought about a cup of tea with sugar when the sandwich man came. It was just a distraction of mind. She wouldn’t spend two cents on herself for a cup of tea.

After a while the sun bowed out behind a bank of fog and the air grew dense and bitter cold. Nearing the ocean, the drifts thinned away, showing outcrops of basalt lying sideways in the empty fields where they’d been dumped a millennium ago, and soon there was more road than snow beneath their feet. When the shape of a somber little chapel appeared in the mist, they knew they had reached the farthest crossroads, and from there it was just half a mile to go along a cobble beach before they caught sight of the smokestack and double roof of the cannery.

Cora was to cut the heads and tails off sardines with a scissors. It was a job she had done since childhood, and her nieces would have been there too, if they weren’t home sick. The first thing she did was to tape her fingers because you had to press hard against the scissors in order to make two strong cuts that severed the spine. More than two cuts would make Mr. Healy mad. The fish flipped around dangerously, suffocating on air. The heads were used for bait and went into one bucket, the bodies another. The buckets were tended by the littlest girls. This was how one day at the cannery Cora’s older sister, Avis, nearly cut off a thumb when she was eight, chasing a dying sardine. Their mother, Luella, was on the labeling machine down the other end, and Mr. Healy wanted her to stay put, so he said nothing about the accident, shoving Avis out the door and telling her to run home, halfway bleeding to death.

Luella was incensed when she found out, and told Mrs. Healy what her husband had done. The next day he showed up with a bag of peppermints for Avis, but it was only because Luella was a fast packer and saved him money in the long run. Cora had inherited the knack. When the racks holding trays of cooked sardines started coming out of the ovens on that February day, Mr. Healy moved Cora Blake to the canning line. She could do fifty cans in half an hour despite the stench and the rivers of gurry—gray sludge of wasted fish heads and entrails—they were forced to stand in. For every tray you finished you put a wooden token in the jar. Cora wasn’t sorry to put those scissors down; her sleeves were already all stiffened up with the juices and lifeblood.

The cannery shook with the impact of waves breaking just below. Spume off the whitecaps spit right through gaps in the rotted wood. Inside it was cold as an icebox, except for scalding fits of steam when the oven doors were opened. Despite tolerating the treacherous conditions, Mr. Healy enforced the regulation that employees must wear aprons and coverings over their hair. None were provided, so women brought their own—bandannas and boudoir caps would do—resulting in some odd costumes. Cora kept the mackinaw on, along with a sunbonnet tied beneath her chin, so the ribbons wouldn’t get caught in the machinery.

It was just her luck to be on the assembly line across from Mrs. Celery Face, Essie Jordan, president of the Martha Washington Benevolent Society. Martha Washington was a temperance society, which meant a hodgepodge of angry wives who were fed up with living with drunken men. The men wouldn’t listen to them, so they turned to other women, in the hope that collective female power would get them to behave. Some, like Essie Jordan, seemed mad as hell at just about everything. Her small cunning blue eyes said, I’m still here and don’t you forget it!

“I’m telling you for your own good,” Essie said. She had to shout above the clatter. “Your brother-in-law is askin’ for it, right out flaunting the law.”

“Just what are you referring to?”

With Big Ole Uncle Percy there were always possibilities: stealing wood, stealing lobster traps, spitting, shooting at the racket boys from Portland—

“I’m referring,” Essie said archly, “to importing illegal alcohol. As if you didn’t know.”

Ah yes, that too. But Big Ole Uncle Percy was only getting his small draft of the spoils of Prohibition, brisk business on the craggy coast of Maine. You could hide a Canadian steamer loaded with booze in those coves, where bootleggers had radio stations to warn the ships, and armored cars to deliver the goods to upstanding Republicans at private clubs in Bangor. Percy was just the chump in the rowboat.

“Everybody knows,” Cora said mildly.

“Don’t mean we have to stand for it.”

A secondary conveyer belt was grinding into action, moving rows of flashing cans. The edges were razor sharp. Cora would not give Essie Jordan the satisfaction of drawing blood and kept her eyes on her work.

“Essie, it’s no shame that your own husband was arrested for disturbing the peace. He’s not the only man who likes to take a drink.”

The blue eyes fired. “That’s not true.”

“Nobody cares, Essie.”

“Men are weak. That’s why decent women fight against the devil alcohol. You think it don’t affect you because you ain’t married.”

“You know full well my husband died. It was a long time ago,” Cora added with a twist of bitterness. “Maybe so long you don’t remember.”

“I know you was married,” Essie sneered. “The point is, now you ain’t.”

It was afternoon and the sandwich man did not come. Mr. Healy patrolled the tables in the rubber apron he always wore, tweed cap on his swelled head. Cora’s neck ached and she was thirsty. There were no good memories in this reeking place. Even in fair weather, even while their mother was alive, the cannery yard was cluttered with mountains of decaying vegetable matter and clamshells fought over by swarming birds. Mr. Healy counted the ocean as his garbage dump and the tide as his street sweeper, but nature didn’t always oblige, and the facility was usually surrounded by scarlet pools of fish gore. This was the summer playground for the village kids, where they threw rocks at wild cats and raccoons.

The trays of fish kept coming. The cans kept flashing past. Essie’s snide little jab had been aimed at Cora’s friendship with Linwood Moody, a sweet-tempered soil scientist she’d known since high school, who’d recently lost his wife in a car accident. They’d been seen around town together, so what? You call bean supper in the church basement a tryst? Still, Cora’s stomach clenched at the unprovoked attack. How could a person be so put off all the time? It was like Essie Jordan ate mustard for breakfast. There was only one way to put the poor lonely woman out of her misery.

“Essie?” Cora shouted. “How’s your rugging coming?”

Essie was an expert in the art of making rag rugs. Her coils were pulled so tight it was like she turned old bedsheets into steel cables.

“Comin’ fine, I guess.”

“Mrs. Grimble said you’re making braided chair seats for the spring fair.”

“That’s right. Round ones.”

“What kinds of colors?”

“Blues, mostly. Got some nice bright purple from a housedress that belonged to Aunt Dot.”

“Memories in every braid, isn’t that the truth?”

“I suppose.”

“I find it calms the heart.” With no response from Essie, Cora plunged ahead: “Say, did you know I’m going to be chairman of the July Fourth church fair?”

“Ain’t you always?”

Cora bit her lip and let it pass. “I’m thinking we could use some help,” she went on. “How would you like to take over on the crafts committee?”

Essie blinked several times. Her eyes scanned the room with suspicion.

“You’re asking me to run it?”

“Nobody knows more about rugging and weaving than you. I’ll bet you could draw in some good people. What do you say?”

Essie took her time in answering. Something like this—although she’d never admit it—she wanted to keep close to her chest as long as possible; prolong the warmth and softness before it bolted off like one of her black cats. Just then, the steamy room was filled with daylight. Everyone looked up in surprise. The big door had been slid open and the town postmaster, Eli Grimble, stood in the open space. He’d come on his horse and sleigh, and the stomping of the thick-coated animal and the ringing of its harness were like silent pictures as the clanking of the machinery overtook all other sounds.

Mr. Healy strode up and shook his hand, expecting a bundle of mail, but Eli Grimble kept peering into the dimness and gesturing until he sighted Cora Blake. No doubt he found her easily. She had been staring right at him as if with some kind of second sense. After a moment Mr. Healy motioned that she step forward and the eyes of all the other packers followed. Now she was outside in the cold fresh air and the drifts of snow were tinged with sunset.

“Went by your house—” Eli began.

“What’s wrong? Are the children all right?”

“Yes, not to worry, your niece said you were out here, so I thought to come. You have a letter. From the U.S. government.”

He held out an official envelope with her name neatly typed.

“The government? Whatever for?”

Mr. Healy leaned over her shoulder. “Paid your taxes, Mrs. Blake?”

“Of course I paid my taxes!” Cora said.

When she realized the letter was from the War Department she had an unnerving sensation, as if the ground was tilting under her feet. It was just the same as thirteen years ago, when the envelope had contained a handwritten note in pencil from someone named Harris in the Adjunct General’s Office saying that Samuel Blake, her only child, had been killed in action in Montfaucon, France. The letter had been delivered by Eli Grimble, with this same horse and a two-wheeled buggy. There’d been no snow yet, as it was October, near the end of the war. Eli Grimble had come all the way out to Tide’s End Farm to deliver the news, along with the minister and Doc Newcomb.

“What’s going on?” Mr. Healy asked.

The postmaster shrugged. “Seems important.”

Cora tore the envelope open and made them wait while she took her time reading it. Then she read it again, just to be sure. Finally she looked up from the letter and smiled broadly, maybe the first time she’d ever looked happy in that place.

“I won’t be needing work this spring, Mr. Healy.”

“Pleased to know that, Mrs. Blake. Meanwhile, you got plenty of work today,” he said, and walked toward the factory.

“Don’t you care to know the reason why?”

Eli Grimble leaned close. “You can tell me,” he offered, the biggest gossip in town.

“Mr. Healy!” she called with exuberance she’d never dared before.


“There’s a reason why.”

The boss dug his boots into the slush and turned with exaggerated patience.

“I guess you’re going to tell me whether I like it or not. All right. Why?”

“I’m going on a trip.”

A group of curious packers had gathered in the doorway. Cora said it loud enough that all of them could hear. Especially Essie Jordan.

“I’m going to Paris,” she announced. “On an ocean liner. First-class.”

Meet the Author

April Smith is the author of the successful novels featuring FBI Special Agent Ana Grey as the central character. She is also an Emmy-nominated television writer and producer. In her research for A Star for Mrs. Blake, she traveled to Maine, New York City, Paris, Verdun, and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Her home base is Santa Monica, California, where she lives with her husband. 

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A Star for Mrs. Blake 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is rare that a book enlightens, entertains and informs at every turn of the page. Kudos to Ms. Smith for sharing Cora's journey with us. I was drawn into the pilgrimage. A very touching yet uplifting book.
blixen1 More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book.  I had never heard about the Gold Star mother's and their pilgrimage before and this story really brings it to light.  You will not be disappointed with this purchase.
irishclaireKG More than 1 year ago
Good Potential--But Falls Apart. I really wanted to like this novel more than I did. The back story of the Gold Star mothers is worth a book, but I think the subject needs a better one than this. The novel starts with great promise, exposing a mostly forgotten part of history: the Gold Star mothers of fallen WWI sons. The women depicted, who make the journey to see where their sons fell--and where some are buried--are intriguing--showing their broad socioeconomic backgrounds and the blatant prejudice, sexism, and underhanded politics that lurk in every corner. However, some of the characters are quite stereotypical and a couple of the most interesting are given stories that just disappear or end up with loose ends, more questions than answers. But perhaps my greatest disappointment is that by halfway through, events become horribly melodramatic, predictable, and ultimately end with a situation that left me rolling my eyes and muttering, 'Oh come on.' For a look at a slice of history most of us know little or nothing about, it is not a bad introduction, but for a really compelling look at unique characters, this just did not do it for me at all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful characters. Fascinating setting. Based on true historical events. Another excellent book on the NOOK is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. It also has strong female characters and is based on actual historical events. Both books deserve A++++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have always loved the Ana Grey mystery novels penned by April Smith. Therefore, I was a little dubious about her detour into the world of historical fiction. My worries were unfounded. A STAR FOR MRS. BLAKE is a marvelous read with engaging characters, some heart-stopping action scenes, and a wealth of historical information about the 1930s. Cora Blake is a remarkable heroine who will not soon be forgotten by the reader. April Smith is a marvelous writer and her book is a great tribute to those who have served nobly in the military services.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I tried so hard to like this book, to become immersed in the story line and the plight of the characters, but I couldn't sustain interest. Maybe because the author took too long to get to the point of the book, maybe because the characters were flat and stereotyped, maybe because the dialogue was stiff and boring, but whatever the problem, I could not finish this book. When I have to force myself to continue reading, when getting deeper into a book is no longer enjoyable, I know it is time to find something else to read. I wasted time and money on this disappointing book that had little depth or substance..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm glad I read this book as it covered a subject I knew nothing about:  the pilgrimages of Gold Star mothers, who had lost their sons in WWI, to the foreign cemeteries where they had been buried.  I felt, though, that this book could have been so much more than it was.   Rather than focusing on the emotional journey of the mothers, it took twist and turns that added little to the main story.  Several of the characters were never well developed but remained stereotypes (the immigrant Irish woman, resentful of the wealthy employees for whom she works, the Jewish mother, a woman who is emotionally disturbed) .  It  took a long time to actually get to the trip itself and I didn't truly feel the impact this pilgrimage should have had on these characters.  So I am glad for the exposure to this topic but disappointed in the scattered, rather superficial way the author covered it.
IEB More than 1 year ago
The book was a fast read. The author depicted and described the characters quite well. The subject matter was poignant for we continue to personally experience the effects of war and the loved ones we have lost.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the book! I had been doing genealogy and found a picture of a WWI solder in uniform who turned out to be a cousin. His mother and my great great grandmother were sisters. His brother died in the war.. one month to the day before the war ended. His mother was invited to go to France where he was buried,, the meuse Argonne Cem. but coul dnot go because of old age and health, evidently.. So I was soo thrilled to read all about the pilgrimage even though it was a novel.. It was a wonderful read and kept me involved every page!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
booknerdDS More than 1 year ago
When I started this book, "A Star For Mrs. Blake" by April Smith I anticipated that because of the content matter it would be very emotionally heavy. Cora Blake is faced with the task not only of having lost her child to war, a devastating occurrence in itself, but of deciding if she should have her son buried in her hometown next to her family members. Cora is not an overly emotional person, through her we see everyday occurrences but these occurrences are not burdened with emotion. At first I found her to be cold but as the story unraveled and the stories of other characters became a part of the common loss that they all shared this lack of emotional devastation made the loss more tolerable. There was one quote that cemented all elements of the story and that, I thought, really provided a wonderful insight to Cara, " Mrs. Roosevelt and I have always believed that where the tree falls, there let it lay." (p.14) I really enjoyed that this was really a story focused on the historical events of the time. The author really provided a lot of great information about not only what was happening historically but how people thought. There was a very authentic feel to how all these characters viewed their life and the sense of duty that they had. Although they were all dealing with sadness, loss and pain there was a stoicism and a sense of "this is what it is" that gave great insight to the dedication families felt when their children enlisted to become soldiers. All though Cora and the other "Gold Star Mothers" are bonded by grief that did not mean they all became fast friends. There were moments of friction as these very different woman make a journey to France to visit their fallen soldiers-their sons. I really enjoyed this story and found it to be very insightful to the time period. I also really loved that the author focused on this opportunity that the U.S Congress provided for mothers of fallen soldiers. I feel like reading this book was very rewarding.
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wordsandpeace More than 1 year ago
Very powerful novel reflecting on many facets of international conflicts. Highly recommended to anyone curious to know what happened on the field of WWI, and how it affected people, relationships, and countries. In 1929, American mothers of soldiers fallen during WWI in France were offered a free trip to allow them to visit the graves of their sons. In A Star For Mrs. Blake, April Smith recounts this trip through the portrayal of 5 of these Gold Star Mothers. To do so, she based her inspiration on the Diary of Colonel Thomas Hammond, who did accompany such a group of pilgrims. Hammond is in the novel, under his real name, and just as in life, this adventure changed the course of his military career. The book starts slowly, with the description of Cora Blake’s daily life in Maine, in a small city living mostly from the sea. This slow beginning helps to understand who Cora is, and how she dealt with her grief of losing her boy during WWI. It also highlights the difference between her milieu and the persons and sites she will discover during her trip to France. I highly enjoyed this book, which touches on so many major themes around war and its effects, though not in an overwhelming way. - grief of course, and how each woman lives it differently, from serene but sad acceptance, to insanity. There are very powerful scenes when the mothers finally arrive in the cemetery in chapter 16. The author also portrays very well how grief colors and modifies relationship between people. - disability, with the character of a journalist - destruction, with incredible descriptions of Verdun. The women, some coming from an affluent American high society, are shocked to discover what war did to this city, which has barely started reconstruction in 1929. The mothers, coming really from protective naive milieus (compared to what the French just had to go through) are also shocked at discovering the reality of collaboration during the war. - ever present problem of unexploded grenades and bombs. The scene when a Gold Star Mother comes upon an unexploded bomb in the book is so true to life, so well rendered. Lots of other themes fascinated me in this book. For instance diversity. The theme was so well treated, with the beautiful relationship developing between the black mother and the other ladies in her group who totally accepted her among them, just as any mother having sacrificed her son for the sake of peace, but how the system intervened and messed up everything. In relation to this theme and others, the army definitely does not come out too well in this book. No surprise for me here. There’s an awesome passage on the futility of war in chapter 22. And there’s also social diversity, and how women form totally different social backgrounds interact. And national diversity and relationships, with quite revealing scenes between Americans, French, and Germans. In some French regions today, especially among older generations, you still can feel this is not neutral ground. I also liked other things surrounding Cora’s life at home, her inner debate about possibly starting a new life, and a very special person she met at the end of her trip. I think the author did an amazing job at dealing with highly emotional topics without ever falling into the teary or over gruesome style.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I recommend this book for book clubs, friends, anyone. The story gives one a glimpse of what times and WWI must have been like. It is sad, realistic, heartwarming.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
As a young child in the late 60s- early 70s, I can remember walking to school and passing by a house that had a gold star in the window. When I asked my mom what that meant, she told me that the woman who lived in that house lost a son in the war. It always made me sad thinking about that mom and her son. April Smith's new historical novel, A Star For Mrs. Blake, tells the story of Cora Blake, a woman who lost her only son in battle in France during WWI. She has had a tough existence since then, losing her mother and sister, and moving in with her brother-in-law to care for him and his three daughters. The Great Depression has hit the coastal rural area of Maine particularly hard, and Cora scrapes by working occasionally at a fish canning manufacturer, difficult dirty work that pays little. Her saving grace is volunteering at the local library, which would not be open if not for Cora. She has a beau, a geologist who wants to marry her. An opportunity arises where certain Gold Star mothers whose sons were buried overseas can go to France to visit their sons' graves, located in a big military cemetery. Cora jumps at the chance and in her small group are Katie, an Irish working woman who lost two sons, Minnie, a Jewish woman, Wilhemina, whom they discover spent time in an asylum, and Bobbie, a wealthy Boston socialite. Lt. Tom Hammond is their military escort, along with Lily, a young nurse from Chicago. The women, who come from such different places, do not always get along and have more than a few skirmishes. Along the way, Cora meets Griffin Reed, a war journalist who was severely injured in battle and now has a tin mask covering part of his face and a morphine addiction. (Anyone who has watched HBO's Boardwalk Empire will understand about the mask, worn by WWI vet Richard Harrow in the show.) Cora and Griffin become friends, perhaps because they both are hiding behind a disguise- Reed behind his mask and Cora behind a lie she has been living with for many years. I liked the growing relationship between these two people. The women are taken from place to place in France, and soon strafe living under the military rules they have been forced to follow. Seeing these women who, once away from their husbands and families, become stronger and bond together is satisfying and learning more about their home situations is interesting. There are some secrets discovered along the way, and I admit that I found at least one incident at the end of the book a little too soap opera for my taste, but overall I really enjoyed this book. The mixing of politics and military is also an intriguing aspect of this book. Reading books based on historical facts interest me, and in the acknowledgements Smith shares her real life inspirations for her fascinating book. I had never heard about these Gold Star mother pilgrimages and will be looking for more information on them. Fans of Sarah Blake's The Postmistress and Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone (who also had a protagonist named Cora) will find much to like here, with women who, once away from home, find something in themselves they may not have known existed.