A Star for Mrs. Blake: A novel [NOOK Book]


The United States Congress in 1929 passed legislation to fund travel for mothers of the fallen soldiers of World War I to visit their sons’ graves in France. Over the next three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made the trip. In this emotionally charged, brilliantly realized novel, April Smith breathes life into a unique moment in American history, imagining the experience of five of these women.

They are strangers at the start, but their lives ...
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A Star for Mrs. Blake: A novel

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The United States Congress in 1929 passed legislation to fund travel for mothers of the fallen soldiers of World War I to visit their sons’ graves in France. Over the next three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made the trip. In this emotionally charged, brilliantly realized novel, April Smith breathes life into a unique moment in American history, imagining the experience of five of these women.

They are strangers at the start, but their lives will become inextricably intertwined, altered in indelible ways. These very different Gold Star Mothers travel to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery to say final good-byes to their sons and come together along the way to face the unexpected: a death, a scandal, and a secret revealed. 

None of these pilgrims will be as affected as Cora Blake, who has lived almost her entire life in a small fishing village off the coast of Maine, caring for her late sister’s three daughters, hoping to fill the void left by the death of her son, Sammy, who was killed on a scouting mission during the final days of the war. Cora believes she is managing as well as can be expected in the midst of the Depression, but nothing has prepared her for what lies ahead on this unpredictable journey, including an extraordinary encounter with an expatriate American journalist, Griffin Reed, who was wounded in the trenches and hides behind a metal mask, one of hundreds of “tin noses” who became symbols of the war.  

With expert storytelling, memorable characters, and beautiful prose, April Smith gives us a timeless story, by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, set against a footnote of history––little known, yet unforgettable. 

This ebook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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.

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307958853
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 13,187
  • File size: 3 MB

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.    

From the Hardcover edition.

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Interviews & Essays

A conversation with A p r i l S m i t h author of


Q: What initially drew you to the story of the American Gold Star Mothers and their pilgrimage to France?

A: I was gripped by the enduring power of motherhood. You never stop being a parent, even after the separation of death. When they boarded those ocean liners for the trip to France, seven thousand ordinary American women left the safety of their everyday worlds in order to touch — however symbolically — their beloved sons who had died in service. Most had never left their home towns; many were immigrants who did not speak English. The courage to undertake that journey was the inspiration for this book. It took twenty years of working the story for me to understand the complexities of what these ladies faced —in the midst of the Depression, a time of deeply rooted ethnic discrimination (blacks were segregated on the pilgrimage), barely a decade after women won the right to vote —but I was compelled to keep going for two reasons: to give voice to those whose sacrifice has been forgotten by history; and to bring to life one of the most compelling, emotional narratives I have ever heard. Also, I do have a wacky side, and the comic potential of five idiosyncratic women with nothing in common, thrown together on an ocean cruise, was irresistible.

Q: How did you discover the diary of Colonel Thomas Hammond? What prompted you to tell the story from his perspective, as well as from that of the Gold Star mothers?

A: I am actually in possession of the handwritten diary of Colonel Thomas Hammond. It was given to me by his son, Nicholas Hammond, in the hope that I might tell the story of his father. (Nicholas Hammond is an actor/ writer/producer, and also a child star in the original film of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.) When Nicholas's father, Col. Thomas Hammond, graduated from West Point in 1929, he was given the honor of escorting the Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages. The diary, although brief, provides an ironic firsthand account of what it was like for a good-looking, twenty-four year old trained for combat to suddenly be put in charge of a group of cranky middle-aged women. Col. Thomas Hammond's own father had been a U.S. Army commander, and he was expected to follow, but as a young man Col. Hammond was so affected by his experience on the Gold Star Mothers pilgrimage that he changed tracks, left the infantry, and went on to a distinguished career as a military strategist and diplomat. That's a pretty good character arc.

Q: Did Colonel Hammond's diary entries help you shape the characters and distinct traits of each of the mothers? Were any of their backgrounds based on true stories?

A: No, the diary is barely a dozen incomplete pages — just an indication of his experience. It's important to emphasize that all the characters except young Hammond are totally fictionalized. Their backgrounds and stories are purely my invention, inspired by material from primary sources including the National Archives, various New England historical societies, numerous reference books, and personal interviews.

Q: Did you find it difficult to portray the loss of these mothers so vividly?

A: I cried for over a year. I was undergoing my own loss, the death of my father, who had encouraged me to become a writer, and there were times when the rawness of the mothers' grief combined with mine was hard

to bear. In addition, I found myself on a dark journey into the details of what happens on a WWI battlefield when a soldier is blown up by a shell —how the body parts are recovered, identified, reburied. Between studying the burial documents and also the medical procedures of early plastic surgery, I inhabited a subterranean world of human disarticulation. I suppose the entire process was mourning for my father in some way.

Q: Was one character easier for you to write than the others? Did you begin to identify with one character more than you did with the others?

A: I fell in love with Griffin Reed, the wounded journalist who wears a mask. What better description of the weird isolation of being a writer? I was so happy spending time with him! Those chapters flowed. It was fun to play with the nuts-and-bolts reality of working writers.

Q: What role do the monuments and geography of France play in the book? Did you spend time in the region in order to describe the pilgrimage as distinctly as you do?

A: Location is huge for me. I travel to every location that appears in my books — from the Dominican Republic to Siena, Italy to Oregon to France. In this case I made a trip to Paris with my son, Benjamin Brayfield, who is a photojournalist, where we traced the pilgrims' itinerary from original documents. We then took a tour of Verdun and the battlefields of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, so I could envision how the action unfolded. It was chilling, but one of the scariest moments was coming upon an overgrown German trench infested with bees, as described when Cora wanders off from her party in A STAR FOR MRS. BLAKE.

Q: How is A Star for Mrs. Blake a departure from your past writing?

A: There are many differences. It's not a mystery/thriller, constrained by the requirements of that genre — BUT — hopefully it retains the suspense of a taut drama. Surprising plot developments do abound, and the great thing about a journey is that it has forward momentum, even if it doesn't go where you'd expect. Stylistically, the Ana Grey novels are told in first person; A STAR FOR MRS. BLAKE is third person told by an omniscient narrator who takes every character's point of view. This was ultimately enormously liberating, but there was a steep learning curve — as well as the personal challenge of emerging from behind the writer's mask to express my own narrative voice.

Q: What do you most hope readers will take away from A Star for Mrs. Blake?

A: I hope they are thoroughly entertained. That they find the book a wonderful escape, fall in love with the characters and are blissfully transported to another world they never want to leave. Also that as a result of going on this journey they are moved to see things differently. I think the book raises important questions about our responsibility as parents and citizens when it comes to acceptance of violence and involvement in war. Many of the mothers in this book — rightfully proud of their sons' service —wonder still if they could have/should have stopped them from enlisting. How far can the bonds of family go? How deeply can we hope to influence our children? I'd like to hear from readers, and contemporary Gold Star Mothers, especially.

Q: Do you have a specific writing routine? How was the process of writing A Star for Mrs. Blake different than your past novels (if at all)?

A: A STAR FOR MRS. BLAKE found its seed in historical facts, but the process of turning those facts into a dramatic narrative was the same as with the Ana Grey novels and even my scripts. I go out into the field, take notes and pictures, meet random people, talk to experts and just wander; let the senses do their work and then come home and make something out of the pieces. My subjects are reality-based, kind of like a Rauschenberg collage, if I may be so bold. Technically, I'm an outliner. I have a white board on which I throw up ideas and look at the big picture. Gradually those thoughts get winnowed down to story beats and chapters. I've also learned it's essential to do detailed biographies of the main characters. But there's a large component of discovery, and obviously, subconscious process that you can't control or predict — and that's the gold.

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Customer Reviews

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( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 29, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    As a young child in the late 60s- early 70s, I can remember walk

    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.

    4 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2014


    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.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2014

    This is a wonderful book.  I had never heard about the Gold Star

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2014

    Good Potential--But Falls Apart.

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2014


    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++++++

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2014

    I have always loved the Ana Grey mystery novels penned by April

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2014

    I tried so hard to like this book, to become immersed in the st

    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..

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2014

    An excellent story.

    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.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 9, 2014

    When I started this book, "A Star For Mrs. Blake" by

    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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  • Posted May 8, 2014

    Very powerful novel reflecting on many facets of international c

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 14, 2014

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