“A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel.”—Kathryn Stockett, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Help
In 1940, Iris James is the postmistress in coastal Franklin, Massachusetts. Iris knows more about the townspeople than she will ever say, and believes her job is to deliver secrets. Yet one day she does the unthinkable: slips a letter into her pocket, reads it, and doesn't deliver it.
Meanwhile, Frankie Bard broadcasts from overseas with Edward R. Murrow. Her dispatches beg listeners to pay heed as the Nazis bomb London nightly. Most of the townspeople of Franklin think the war can't touch them. But both Iris and Frankie know better...
The Postmistress is a tale of two worlds-one shattered by violence, the other willfully naïve—and of two women whose job is to deliver the news, yet who find themselves unable to do so. Through their eyes, and the eyes of everyday people caught in history's tide, it examines how stories are told, and how the fact of war is borne even through everyday life.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Date of Birth:December 10, 1960
Place of Birth:New York, NY
Education:BA Yale College, 1983; MA San Francisco State University, 1991; PhD. New York University, 1996
Read an Excerpt
It began, as it often does, with a woman putting her ducks in a row.
It had occurred to Iris a few weeks back— at the height of summer when tourists jammed the post office with their oiled bodies and their scattered, childish vacation glee— that if what she thought were going to happen was going to, she ought to be prepared. She ought, really oughtn’t she, to be ready to show Harry that though she was forty, as old as the century, he would be the first. The very first. And she had always put more stock in words set down on a clean white piece of paper than any sort of talk. Talk was—
“Right,” said the doctor, turning away to wash his hands.
Iris supposed she was meant to get up and get dressed while his back was turned, but she had not had the foresight to wear a skirt, thinking instead that her blue dress was the thing for this appointment, and no matter how thorough a man Dr. Broad was, he’d have turned around from the sink long before she’d gotten it over her head, and then where would they be? The leather banquette on which she lay was comfortably firm and smelled like the chairs in the reading room at the public library. No, she would stay put. She slid her gaze from the ceiling over to the little sink at which the doctor stood, rubbing his hands beneath the gurgle. He was certainly thorough. Well, there must be all sorts of muck down there anyone would want to wash their hands of. And as the nextstep was the certificate, she ’d be the first to insist that nothing chancy landed on that page by accident.
He straightened, turned off the taps, and flicked his fingers against the back basin before taking up the towel beside him. “Are you decent, Miss James?”
He directed the question to the wall in front of him.
“Not in the least.”
“Right,” he said again, “I’ll see you in my office.”
“For the certificate.”
Nearly to the door, he paused with his hand outstretched, glancing down at her. She gave him her post office smile, the one she used behind her window, meant to invite cooperation.
“Yes,” he said, and he grasped hold of the handle, pushing it smartly down and pulling open the door. She waited until she heard the latch click softly after him before she rose, holding one hand to the loosened pins in her hair and the other around her front. She felt a bit as she did in the mornings, unbound by bra or girdle, herself come loose. All fine in the security of her own bedroom, but here she was in the middle of Boston, in one of the discreet buildings fronting the Public Gardens, after lunch on a Thursday in September. On the other side of the door, the steady rhythm of a typewriter clattered through the quiet. The tiles were cool under her feet and she reached first for her underthings, leaning against the banquette as she drew one stocking on, then the next, snapping the garters firmly. Hanging from the back of the chair, the cups of her brassiere pointed straight out into the room— like headlights. She smiled, pulling the bra on, and for the third time that afternoon, she thought of Harry Vale.
A single rap at the door. “I’m ready when you are, Miss James.”
“I’ll be right in,” she called back.
Everything had been genial. Everything had been perfectly nice. The doctor’s office was the sort to glory in— thick green curtains pulled back from high windows, just skimming a rich gray carpet. The secretary in the outer nook, typing away. The hush of order as she had taken Iris’s coat and slipped it onto the wooden hanger. And the doctor, just right, too. How he’d opened the door and held out his warm hand to her, half as greeting, half as a hand up from where she sat waiting. And he’d led her through into his office, signaling the chair in front of his great oak desk as he continued around it to his own position. He’d even pressed his fingertips together under his chin, his serious eyes upon her as she placed her pocketbook upon her lap. They’d spoken briefly of Mrs. Alsop, exchanging pleasantries about the woman from whom Miss James had acquired Dr. Broad’s name, just as if they’d all been acquaintances bumped into in the lobby of a traveler’s hotel. The doctor had listened and smiled, asking Iris if she got to Boston often.
It had all cracked slightly, with her request. Not audibly, but noticeably enough for Iris to recognize that the doctor was going to need some prodding: that the capacious room notwithstanding, Dr. Broad lacked imagination. He was happy to examine her, he told her, leaning back in his chair. But why the piece of paper?
“I would have thought every man might like to have such a thing?” she suggested.
Dr. Broad cleared his throat.
“Perhaps that’s a bit familiar of me,” she concluded aloud, watching the man across the desk from her inch his hands along the arms of his chair, making as if to rise.“Why don’t we begin?” He smiled and did rise, bringing the interview to a halt.
So she had not had a chance to answer the question fully. And opening the door between the examining room and his office, she could see, by the studied lifting of his head from what occupied him at his desk, that she ’d not be given another chance. He was very busy. She was just one of many women he tended to.
“Please,” he said, “have a seat.”
“Everything’s in order?”
“You’re perfect,” he answered.
His eyes remaining on the paper before him, he took it up and handed it across the desktop to her. “Will that do?”
She reached and took the page in her hand and looked down.
This is to certify thatMiss Iris Jameswas examined on 21 September 1940and found to beIntact.
She had been right. There’d been no skimping on the paper. Dr. Broad’s stationery was beautifully creamy, nearly linen. And though he’d obviously had little enthusiasm for the project, he’d written it all out wonderfully. She thought he might have won a handwriting prize in school.
“It’s perfect,” she smiled up at him. “Thank you.”
“Glad to help,” he said, and graciously stood behind his desk as she rose and moved to the door. For several moments he remained standing, listening to her there on the other side of the door, asking for her coat from Miss Prentiss, and then for the quickest bus route from here to South Station. Their voices were light and agreeable, the lilt and tone of which he usually managed to ignore while working inside. Then the outer door opened and shut, and, after a pause, Miss Prentiss resumed her typing. He walked over to one of the two windows facing down into the Public Gardens.
He almost missed her. She had emerged so quickly from his building that she was across the street and around the corner pillars of the Gardens, walking swiftly away from him up the outer walk. She carried herself like someone under review, shoulders thrown back, her head pulled up. “What a queer character,” he mused. He followed her the fifty- odd feet she remained in sight, until eventually she was swallowed up by the city and the distance. He turned back around to his desk. “I thought every man should want such a thing,” she had said right there.
And bombs were falling on Coventry, London, and Kent. Sleek metal pellets shaped like the blunt- tipped ends of pencils aimed down upon hedgerow and thatch. What was a hedgerow? Where was Coventry? In History and Geography, Hitler’s army marched upon the school maps of Europe, while next door in English, the voices recited from singsong memory— I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made. Bombers flew above the wattles, over an England filled with the songs of linnets and thrush. There were things being broken we had no American names for.
There was war. What did it mean, War? Stretched out upon the pages of Life, the children of Coventry stared up into an inquisitive camera. We could see them. They looked unafraid there in the ditch dug for safety. Their hands spread- eagled against the dirt walls for balance, the two girls still in skirts. There was a boy with no expression. He looked back at us straight, and the collar of his jacket was fastened by a safety pin. He was already there, in the war.
Where our boys were not going. The president had promised. He spoke bluntly, as if he were one of the people, but he wasn’t, thank God. Nobody thought so. When he said the boys would not fight in foreign wars, we believed him, though we had listened to the names of the French towns falling the way people listen to the names of medicine before they are taken ill themselves.Now the talk was of a German invasion. Would England stand? Their tanks and trucks, their guns, hulked useless on the other side of the Channel where they’d left them at Dunkirk. But when we were told the Brits had dragged cannons out of the British Museum, wheeling them down to the Thames, we nodded. Bombs had crashed down on London now for sixteen nights. Buses were stopped in the street. Babies hurled from their beds, we were told. Still, in the morning, one by one, Londoners crept back out into the light and we cheered them. England would stand. Nobody knew the ending. Buchenwald was as yet only a town in Germany, where sunlight splattered the trees. Auschwitz. Bergen- Belsen. Simply foreign names. It was the end of summer and the lights were still on.
In South Station, Iris made her way toward the train for Buzzard’s Bay, amusing herself by watching the transfer of mailbags into the freight cars at the back. It happened rarely that she traveled with the mail, but it gave her exquisite pleasure to take a seat in the foremost car, the very front seat if she could manage it. All these letters, all these words scratched out one to the other, spinning their way toward someone. Someone waiting. Someone writing. That was the point of it all, keeping the pure chutes clear, so that anybody’s letter— finding its way to the post office, into the canvas sacks, the many-hued envelopes jostling and nestling, shuffling with all the others— could journey forward, joining all the other paper thoughts sent out minute by minute to vanquish—
The stationmaster announced the departure of the Buffalo Express and she gazed up at the clock and watched the hand stitch one second to the next. In another minute her train would be called, and she’d join the crowd boarding, pulled back into the shape of her name and of her person. She’d be Iris James, again. Postmaster of Franklin, Massachusetts.
Where Harry was. And the new place in her chest that seemed to havebeen made by him— that flipped and moved when she caught sight of him on the street, or in line behind others at the post office— bounded. A year ago, he’d just been Harry Vale, the town mechanic, nice enough, good for a spare tire and a chat. And then, one day, he wasn’t. He was something else. For he had walked into Alden’s Market not too long ago and come slowly up behind her so that when she turned around, a can of creamed corn in one hand and plain in the other, there was nothing to do but raise them both to him, offering a choice. He looked at her and then down at the cans, seeming to consider the two very carefully. Finally, he put his thick hand out and pointed to the plain. She nodded. He’d have to tip his head up to kiss her, Iris found herself thinking.
She’d never imagined it would come to her, but here it was— Harry Vale had looked at her with the look that signaled something’s on. And he had done it in plain sight. Never mind Beth Alden watching at the counter. Never mind the heat bolting from the canned goods at the back of the store. She patted her pocketbook. Was it odd what she had done? Well, so what if it was. What she had said to the doctor was God’s own truth— any man would want to know he was the first, she was sure of it— and she could give Harry the paper, beautiful and clean as a white dress at the end of an aisle, which she was too old for, and anyway white was her least becoming color.
At Nauset, Iris descended the Boston train and walked the four blocksthrough the central town on the Cape to find the bus out to Franklin. Mr. Flores sat in the shade cast by the bus and pushed himself up onto his feet, ambling forward. She had reapplied her lipstick and combed her hair as the train had pulled into the station, which was a good thing because he was staring.
“Hello, Miss James. Good trip down?”
“Yes, thanks.” She looked him straight back in the eyes, daring him to ask her anything more.
He nodded and pointed her toward the bus’s open door. Iris pulled herself up the three short stairs and into the bus. There was a foreign couple, a couple of stray women sitting alone, and an assortment of men clustered around Flores’s seat at the front of the bus. Iris nodded and made her way toward the back, past a young woman with her head in a thick book, the curve of her neck laid bare as her hair swept forward. She did not look up, and she didn’t stir as Iris passed her by to find a seat three rows back.
Iris reached into her skirt pocket for her cigarettes, shook out a Lucky, and considered the head and shoulders of the little child- woman reading in front of her. A runaway, thought the postmaster, though she was quite well dressed in a sensible blue suit, her brown hair cut short and feathering along the straight edge of her collar. In any case, she was the sort who needed tending, the small- breasted women who tip their faces up to men, smiling delightedly as babies. At last the little creature turned slightly, as if to meet Iris’s gaze, aware of her attention, and gave a noncommittal smile— a mechanical response like a hand put out to ward off the sun. Iris nodded, companionably, exhaling smoke. It’s all right—she addressed the woman’s back, now turned away again— I won’t bite. The bus bounced a little as Mr. Flores climbed up behind the wheel and swung himself into his seat, and the engine roared to life, shaking the floor under Iris’s feet.
Vronsky was making love to Anna.
Emma read the sentence again, distracted by the pillar of a woman behind her. Did Tolstoy really mean making love? She couldn’t think so. Having sex? It would be so bald written on the page like that. Surely they can’t have been making love here and there like this in the nineteenth century. It must refer to something else, something more benign. She flushed, a little guiltily. Not that having sex wasn’t benign— of course it was, it led to babies, after all. Though the things that she and Will had begun to do in the dark had nothing whatsoever to do with babies. But Anna and Vronsky? They had been constrained, wasn’t that the idea? Perhaps it was the translation. She flipped to the cover of the book and read the name beneath Tolstoy’s— Constance Garnett. Emma thought she understood. Vronsky had whispered something loving to Anna, or soothed Anna lovingly, or something like that, and Miss Garnett had used other words instead, painting what ought to be a pink scene— scarlet. Probably a spinster; the pathetic type who reads passion into the twist of a shut umbrella. Like that woman in the back of the bus.
She pushed her bottom back a bit against the seat on the bus so that she sat up straighter, the doctor’s new wife in a very attractive travel suit with a matching scarf thrown around her shoulders. She stared out the window. Since she had said to Will Fitch two weeks ago— hurriedly, afraid to look up at him, Yes. Yes, I will. I do— something firm and satisfying and entirely new had entered into the frequent chaos of her mind. As though Edward R. Murrow’s voice, that brave, impassioned masculine voice, full of its own urgency and volume, had laid down the track upon which she now hummed. Clarity ran upon that track, and purpose.
Pamet. Then Dillworth. Finally Drake. Closing her eyes, Emma recited the names of the towns she knew only through Will’s letters, in which the geography of her new land was mapped by the various ailments of the people he treated. Heart disease. Bursitis. A pair of twins delivered in Drake, which was a miracle, wrote Will, given that the mother had neither the time nor the means to get off the Cape quick enough—
“Is your Bobby turning twenty, twenty- one?” The man’s voice in front of her broke in.
“ Twenty- one.”
“They won’t send ’em over there. Get them trained up, okay. Hell, have them build a few bridges! But they won’t send ’em.”
The second man didn’t answer right away and stared out the window. Emma found herself watching the strict profile of his nose and chin as if for some sign. The trees flashed past. “Sure they will,” he said, turning back to his companion.
It served her right. Emma sat back, annoyed at herself for listening in. She had heard it this morning and tried to forget it, had forgotten it in fact, but now here it was again. The draft had passed in Congress, and all men of serviceable age were to report to the draft boards that had sprung up in every town, little and large, like mushrooms after a rain. Not that it would matter to her, she protested to the slight reflection of her hands on her lap in the window. Will wouldn’t go. He had said as much. (Though not definitively, she corrected, scrupulously honesteven in her worry.) He shouldn’t go, she amended. He certainly had cause to plead hardship. He was the last in line of the Fitches. He was the sole doctor for miles— and she had just married him.
Anyway, he couldn’t leave her. There was a central fact to everyone’s life, she thought, a fact from which all else stemmed. Hers was that she had been utterly alone in the world— until she met Will. She had lost her mother and father and brother in the epidemic in 1918. They had died in a fever dream, and she had lived; and now, it had been so long, they might have never lived at all. There was a house on a hill, far from the sea, where she had been born. And a town she remembered full of the flappings of flags, which she realized now was her memory of the tents they all lay in, out in the field, because the hospital was gorged with the sick. The memory she might have had of her mother was blotted out by a nurse’s face, wrapped in a mask, bending over her in her cot, checkingto see if she breathed.
Now it would start, this next part. The orphaned girl with the serious eyes and the mole at the base of her throat was now the doctor’s wife, with a husband, a house, and a town. Marrying Will had pulled her through the dim gray curtain of unaccented time. The time spent in a shared room at the top of a boardinghouse, her stockings drying on the ladder- back chair. She was going home. She tried a smile in the window glass. Home. To Will.
Emma slid the Federal Writer’s Project guidebook on Cape Cod out from her satchel, turning to its section on Franklin: The bait at the end of the sandy hook sticking fifty- odd miles into the Atlantic, the town of Franklin waves slyly back at the shore. The first thing one loses there is a sense of direction. Ringed by the yellow- white sand dunes and water on all sides, North and South seem to switch points on the compass, and the sky is no help. It is a place swollen by fish and the smell of fish, of cod oil, of the broken spars of whale bones and masts spat back from the sea onto the broad swath of beaches behind the town. Pilgrims of one sort or another have always come: first the Puritans, then the Portuguese whalers, and then at the turn of the last century artists arrived, wrapping their scarves on the tops of old dories and painting them; and policemen’s daughters who have come down from Boston mixed with the parti- colored crowds, saying wasn’t it fun, wasn’t it something how the Mediterranean sons of fishermen walked arm and arm with the Yankee gold while the bright lights of the summer theaters glow out into the dark—Christ! She flipped the book shut and stuffed it back. It was as purple as the Garnett.
Mr. Flores hunched low over the wheel, peering into the slanting light, and Emma felt the road spinning her closer and closer in. The stark white houses of Woodling passed one after another. Through the Tralpee forest they went, the squat beechwood flinging away on either side, until at last the bus reached the crest of the hill before Franklin. And as the bus stuttered at the top in the beat before descending, she sat up straight wishing— suddenly, unaccountably— that the line between her and this town would snap. Mr. Flores’s fist paused above the gearshift. The dunes spread wide around them.
For a brief instant, Emma felt they might fly. The sky through the broad front window called. And she nearly stood up in her seat, imagining herself able to continue straight, the road falling away as the bus rode forward into the illimitable air. But the gears caught, and the bus shuddered down through the high hills of sand. Down they rode until the tarmac pulled free of the dunes and curved toward the sea, jogging alongside the gray harbor into town.
The bus churtled past the stark lines of the shingled roofs triangling into the September evening. The flag snapped in the wind above the steep pitch of the post office, and the bus slowed to a crawl as Mr. Flores negotiated the narrow street shared now with people walking, hallooing to the bus, on bicycles spinning alongside. The town unfolding outside the window, she put her hand out upon the seat in front of her, a flush rising in the hollow of her throat. She had prided herself on how quickly she would get the names of all the townspeople, showing off her knowledge to Will, whom she imagined would return every night as if to a theater of her making, delighting to find himself in his familiar town,revealed and illumined now by his Emma’s perceptions. Emma meant to be an asset to him in this way. He would be the best doctor because his probes need not be blind.
But the flesh was a different matter. Arriving, as she had, straight into the center of the town, the slightness of her imagination struck her full force. For here they all were already. Two women in conversation on the corner broke off to stare as the bus pulled to its stop. The town was not waiting to start up with her arrival. The town was clearly already itself without her. The door swung open and she smelled the sea in the air. She sat still in her seat for a moment, collecting her gloves, marshaling the courage to find Will in the crowd, certain he was just there on the other side of the bus waiting with that impatient, exacting smile of his. The woman from the back of the bus brushed past, causing Emma to look up, and then she made out Will’s head above the line of some others comingtoward the bus, his long body tipped forward. One felt that he had much on his mind, and much to do. He had caught sight of her through the glass and he waved. She waved back and the scarf slipped off her shoulders as she bolted up now, she was that happy, and through the empty bus toward the door.
“Hiya.” His head came around the open door and he was up the stairs just as she arrived at them and he reached for her and pulled her directly into his arms. She raised her mouth to his and the warm familiar lips pressed hers, softly at first and then more deeply as he gathered her even closer so she could feel the whole hard length of him against her skirt. Though they were right out in public, she closed her eyes and moved into the grotto of their kiss where it was dark and cool, her lips opening under his, and then with a happy moan she pulled herself away from his lips, back out into the light.
“Hiya.” She smiled up at him breathless, a little prick of pride rising at the sight of him right there before her. How had she managed it? She had sat beside him in restaurants, on buses, walked next to him on the streets of Cambridge, the familiar length of his stride a comfort, almost like knowledge. They knew each other this way. He had shepherded her around, his arm under hers, his hand at the small of her back propelling her into smoky rooms, and back out again. They had talked and laughed. They had even quarreled. And then, suddenly one afternoon in the spring, he had asked her to marry him. It was crazy, mad— but that was part of the story, wasn’t it?— Dr. Lowenstein had written to take him into the practice and he had stuffed the telegram in his pocket and gone down on his knees right there in the Back Bay post office. And she looked down at him and began nodding before he had opened his mouth. They had arrived at the pact like children. It was the next step, the only step, the serious one. As if, joining hands, they had closed their eyes and jumped, without even holding their breath.
He leaned down to read the title of the book in her hand, still holding tight to her as he did. Her scarf had slipped off her shoulders and the long triangle of her bare skin gave off a bright heat like summer grass.
“Like it?” he asked.
“Could they have been making love in the nineteenth century?” She pulled her gaze away, offering up the last thing, least important, that had rested on the shelf of her mind.
“I don’t see how we’d all have gotten here if they hadn’t.”
“No, no. Look.” She opened the book right there on the top step of the bus and rippled through the pages, sharply aware of his eyes on her shoulders and arms. They had kissed. They had touched each other through layers of silk and wool. Through jackets and trousers and blouses and skirts, but his eyes might as well have been hands now, her skin prickling and flushing as he put his foot on the stair next to hers and his jacket slid open. “There,” she pointed.
He looked down and read, “Vronksy was making love— ”
“It’s so naked,” she said and then blushed, “to say it like that.”
He pressed against her. “Like what?”
“On the page. Wouldn’t the readers have been shocked? I am.”
“You are not,” he whispered.
“I am,” she giggled, leaning her shoulder into his. “I really am. A modern reader.”
“It meant something else. Everyone understood.”
“Courting,” he answered, his smile lighting up the impossible inches between them.
“Oh,” she sighed happily. “Well, you would know.”
“Come on,” he put his hand under her elbow to draw her down the stairs. “Let’s go home.”
Through the open door, a suitcase sailed off the busman’s hook, flying for a moment in the air until it crashed down and split, cracking open upon the sidewalk neat as a tapped egg.
“Oh!” cried Emma.
Will stopped where he was at the door of the bus, staring down at the voluptuous explosion of what must be Em’s underthings cascading over the popped sides of the case. They were numerous, silky, and a twilit blue, tossed and flung in a delirious striptease, showing themselves like sirens. He squeezed Emma’s hand tucked in his behind his back.
“No one saw,” he said to her. “I’ll step around and help Flores. That’ll give you a minute.”
Emma nodded, letting go of his hand, and slipped off the last of the bus stairs onto the pavement. She had to fight the urge to fling herself onto the smashed case and cover the strewn clothing with her body, but that woman from the bus was leaning against the railing on the pavement, watching.
“Shall I help you pick up?” she asked.
To her own surprise, Emma found herself nodding. The two of them kneeled down without another word to gather the stockings, the soft bras, and the slight blue panties from the ground. The woman was so quiet and so careful with Emma’s things that the bride’s throat closed over with tears.
“It’s only clothing,” the other woman said quietly. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I know,” Emma whispered back.
“Then don’t let him see you cry. He’ll think you are ashamed.”
Emma’s hand hovered over a nightie and she flushed up. What did this woman know about Will or about what he would think? She tossed the thing into her case.
“I’m not ashamed in the slightest.”
Iris heard the warning in the girl’s voice and glanced across the suitcase at her. “Fine,” she answered. And then, as an afterthought, she added, “I’m Iris James.”
Emma looked into the woman’s square but not unpleasant face framed by dark red hair pulled back on either side like curtains. “Hello,” she answered.
“And who might you be?”
Emma threw the last of the things in the suitcase and closed the lid.
“Emma Trask,” she answered, and then blushed— “I mean, Fitch.”
“Nuts,” said Iris with a disarming smile. “The doctor’s bride. And here I had pegged you as a runaway.”
It was the first time Emma had laughed in days. And she would always remember that bubble of her laughter overtaking her there on the sidewalk at Miss James’s feet, her things disarranged, the green slant of the trees behind Miss James’s head, and the evening sun warm on her own back. Will came around from the side of the bus and reached out his hands to pull her up to him. It would all be all right, she decided there and then. And she had laughed out loud again, falling into the circle of Will’s arm.
“Thank you,” he smiled down at Iris. “You’ve been a great help.”
“You’re very welcome, Dr. Fitch,” Iris answered.
“Let’s go home,” he said to Emma.
“All right.” She smiled. And he grabbed her suitcase with his free hand, never letting her loose from his side. Several paces away, Emma turned her head in the crook of Will’s arm and saw Miss James waiting out the stream of cars before slipping in and crossing the road.
“Postmaster James.” He wanted to kiss Emma right there again on the street, but picked up his pace instead.
“Hey,” she protested, laughing, but she skipped along beside him, not taking in anything at all of her new town except the dank smell of the sea, and the heavy air, and the thunk thunk of the waves against the seawall to her left. Straight through the thick of town and out toward the older, quieter part where the steep- angled houses softened as the afternoon wore down. Anyone watching— and everyone was, Emma knew it, it was a small town, after all, and she had to be the topic of most dinner tables, why not? she was young and fairly attractive and he was their doctor!— anyone watching would probably notice how easily the two fell into step as if they’d been walking together for years already. Anyone would have commented on that, and the lamps lighting up inside the houses they passed seemed to Emma a silent strain, like a low murmur beneath the chat, of approval and attention. She straightened herself a little in reply.
Perhaps this was why, when Will reached slightly ahead of her and pushed open a gate, looking down proudly, she hesitated. Here she was, at last. She glanced up at the house, which looked just like all the others along the way— steep- angled roofs and grayed shingles, a wide front porch and a door the color of the shingles, unpainted. They walked slowly toward it, and when they reached the porch steps, Will put his hand under Emma’s elbow. Someone was speaking inside the house, a woman, and as Emma rose up the steps toward the screen door, the urgency in the voice drew her in, as though the house were talking. “For Christ’s sake,” Will muttered as he pulled open the door. “I left the radio on.”
She walked toward the voice. Down the hall she could see through to the kitchen where Will had put beach roses in a jam jar against the window to welcome her. The evening sun splintered through the water and the flowers hung there like pink stars. At the back of the pub, there’s a scoreboard, the woman on the radio said. And tonight, it reads RAF 30, Luftwaffe 20. Although it has been a bad night for the British, it’s been worse— she paused— for the people of Berlin. RAF 30, Luftwaffe 20. There it stands, the score that London keeps each night the Battle con—
Will reached to turn it off. “No”— Emma pushed gently against his hand— “no, who is that?”
“Who is what?” She was tinier than he remembered— he could wrap his arms around her and nearly hug himself, too— and he pulled her in to him and felt her heart just there against him, waiting. That was how it felt just then. Embedded in that whole sweet length— breasts and small belly and hips— her heart waited against his as they pressed together in the sweetening dark, listening to the woman carrying the war toward them, so urgently Will couldn’t stand it, he couldn’t stand there waiting anymore, and just as the woman on the radio slowed to say “This is London, Good ni— ,” he did, at last, snap it off.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake .” Frankie Bard leaned back against the chair in the broadcast studio and closed her eyes. “That came off too high, didn’t it?”
Murrow was silent. She opened her eyes. “Too high and too fast.” She grimaced, agreeing with what he hadn’t said.
“You’ll get it.” He stood up and reached for his hat. “Your type always does— ”
She looked up in time to catch the grin. “My type?”
He leaned toward the studio door. “Mix a martini neat as she can shoot a bear— isn’t that right?”
“That’s right.” Frankie stood. “But New York won’t like it.”
He jerked open the studio door. “Hell with New York. You did fine.”
But New York wouldn’t like it one bit. They’d had this same trouble with Betty Wason, in Norway. The door swung slowly closed behind him. A woman’s voice ought not to be telling America about men fighting. It was too high, too thin. It got too excited. For Christ’s sake. Frankie bent and flicked off the microphone. Mr. Paley’s right- hand man refused even to hire women in the CBS top office as secretaries. Hospital junkets, daily life, that sort of thing— the kinds of thing you might hear in the shops— but for God’s sake women shouldn’t be reporting the war. Men were over there dying in the skies above London. She pushed the pages of her script together into a neat pile, switched off the light in the studio, and reached for the door. Women really ought to marry and settle down and have babies. Women ought not to walk bareheaded under the German bombs looking for vivid word pictures to paint for the people back home.
So there, she chuckled, and rounded the third set of stairs, climbing her way back up from the underground studio to the street level. She pushed open the heavy back door of Broadcasting House into the blacked- out city waiting for the night’s sirens.
When the bombs started at teatime on the seventh of September, there had been nothing to distinguish that moment as the beginning— there was no way to know what was coming, or why or for how long. War dropped down and settled. Four hundred people died in the first minute of the Blitz. Fourteen hundred were left blown up and bleeding that first night, and now seventeen nights later there was no way to know who was still alive— every night new numbers, and you don’t say, Murrow instructed Frankie, “the streets are rivers of blood. Say that the little policeman you usually say hello to every morning is not there today.”
The new moon had risen over the smoking rooftops, and for a moment one could remember the sky without the bombers and the bright rocketing lines of antiaircraft fire over the chimney pots and the distant medieval spires of Westminster Abbey.
She walked briskly along the shuttered house fronts noting with a reporter’s eye tiny slits of light escaping from some of them. Beyond prayer, beyond chance, for some people lay the simple reward of staying put. Come what may. The moon glinted on the chrome bumpers of the taxis. From the big public shelter along the north side of the street she heard someone singing “Body and Soul,” and the man’s voice in the gray quiet of the moonlit street made it all human. Frankie smiled. War weather.
There was a pattern to the night attacks, the high uneven drone of the Luftwaffe planes rising like a deadly song to a crescendo around midnight. The searchlight shot straight up into the blackness where, singly or in pairs, the German planes flew like shuttlecocks up and back down the river— a relentless rhythm. The incendiaries dropped first, firebombing the darkened city, forcing it alight and ablaze, cutting open a pathway for the others to follow. Those came down screaming, or whistling, the heaviest ones roaring like an express train through a tunnel. Worst of all were the parachute bombs that floated gently, silently down to kill. Frankie turned off Oxford Circus onto the Wilmot Road and began the walk home. Two fi re trucks streamed through the emptied streets, racing with their shrouded headlights like blind sirens to the fires. There was heaven, there were the shelters underground, and then here on the street—between the gunners and the gunned— was Middle Earth. In Middle Earth at night, everything was turned upside down in a brilliant kaleidoscope of dizzy bright death set against the black silhouette of London.
A month ago, before the bombs had begun in earnest, Murrow had pulled off a broadcast from five points around London, bringing home the sounds of the bombarded city at night. Frankie had stood with him, watching him poised at the mouth of the bomb shelter down in the crypt of St. Martin’ s- in- the- Fields, moving the microphone cable out of the way of the Londoners as they descended, a courteous escort underground. There had been no way to know whether the Germans would bomb that night, but Murrow concentrated on the steady beat of the people walking in the dark, walking home or down into the shelter, their footsteps sounding like ghosts shod with steel shoes, he said. And when the air raid started, the long swooning climb up the octave in the sky, Murrow’s tense, excited voice narrated the incoming drone of the Luftwaffe, here they come, you can hear them now, and Frankie had felt untouchable then, immortal, holding the microphone up to the night. Here and now. Do you hear this? She wanted to add her voice to Murrow’s, wanted her voice to find the ear of the listeners on the other end of the cable. In that moment, through the air, the Germans plowed straight into an American living room and Frankie was holding the curtain back so they could hear it better, and it was a dare. I dare you, she thought now, to look away.
Excerpted from "The Postmistress"
Copyright © 2011 Sarah Blake.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"Some novels we savor for their lapidary prose, others for their flesh and blood characters, and still others for a sweeping narrative arc that leaves us light- headed and changed; Sarah Blake's masterful, The Postmistress, serves us all this and more. Compassionate, insightful, and unsentimental, this masterful novel is told in a rare and highly successful omniscient voice, one that delves deeply into the seemingly random nature of love and war and story itself. This is a superb book!"
-Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog
"The Postmistress is the fictional communique readers have waited for. Sarah Blake has brought small-town American life and ravaged Europe during WWII to us with cinematic immediacy. The romantic, harrowing and utterly inimitable story of radio journalist Frankie Bard (appalled yet intoxicated by tragedy as no character I've ever read before) contains the uncompromised sensibility found in the writings of Martha Gellhorn. The Postmistress belongs in what Gellhorn called "the permanent and necessary" library."
-Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist and Devotion
"Great books give you a feeling that you miss all day until you finally get to crawl back inside those pages again. The Postmistress is one of those rare books. When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it. Sarah Blake seamlessly moves from inside one character to another, in a novel that reminds us of a time when the news travelled from post to paper to radio and that is how we learned about the world. The Postmistress made me homesick for a time before I was even born. What's remarkable, however, is how relevant the story is to our present-day times. A beautifully written, thought provoking novel that I'm telling everyone I know to read."
-Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help
"An unforgettable, insightful, and compelling novel The Postmistress engages the reader's instincts at the deep level of fight or flight. For WWII radio reporter Frankie Bard, however, the gut response to horror is see and tell. Sarah Blake's prose perfectly recreates the cadences of passion and of the inner life while also conjuring up the wrenching, nightmare suspense of history in the making."
-Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette
"To open Blake's novel of World War II and the convergence of three strong women is to enter a slipstream, so powerful are its velocity, characters, and drama. How can you resist Frankie Bard, an American journalist of gumption and vision who is bravely reporting on the Blitz from London? Her distinctive voice and audacious candor are heard on radios everywhere on the home front, including Cape Cod, where Iris James, in love for the first time at 40, keeps things shipshape at a small-town post office. The third in Blake's triumvirate of impressive women, Emma, the waiflike wife of the town's doctor, is not as obvious a candidate for heroism until a tragedy induces her husband to join the war effort. As Frankie risks her life to record the stories of imperiled Jews, Iris and Emma struggle to maintain order as America goes reluctantly to war. Blake raises unsettling questions about the randomness of violence and death, and the simultaneity of experiencehow can people frolic on a beach while others are being murdered? Matching harrowing action with reflection, romance with pathos, Blake's emotional saga of conscience and genocide is poised to become a best-seller of the highest echelon."
-Donna Seaman, ALA Booklist, Starred review
"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."
-Library Journal, Starred Review
Reading Group Guide
Those who carry the truth sometimes bear a terrible weight…
It is 1940. While war is raging in Europe, in the United States President Roosevelt promises he won’t send American boys over to fight.
Iris James is the postmistress and spinster of Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on Cape Cod. Iris knows a lot more about the townspeople that she will ever say. She knows that Emma Trask has come to marry the town’s young doctor. She knows that Harry Vale, the town’s mechanic, inspects the ocean from the tower of the town hall, searching in vain for German U-Boats he is certain will come. Iris firmly believes that her job is to deliver and keep people’s secrets, to pass along the news of love and sorrow that letters carry. Yet one day Iris does the unthinkable: she slips a letter into her pocket. And then she does something even worse — she reads the letter, then doesn’t deliver it.
Meanwhile, seemingly fearless American radio gal Frankie Bard is working with Edward R. Murrow, reporting from the Blitz in London. Frankie’s radio dispatches crinkle across the Atlantic, imploring listeners to pay attention to what is going on as the Nazis bomb London nightly. Then, in the last, desperate days of the summer of 1941, Frankie rides the trains out of Germany and reports what is happening. But while most of the townspeople of Franklin are convinced the war “overseas” can’t touch them, Iris and Emma — unable to tear themselves away from Frankie’s voice — know better.
Alternating between an America on the eve of entering into World War II, still safe and snug in its inability to grasp the danger at hand, and a Europe being torn apart by war, the two stories collide in a letter, bringing the war finally home to Franklin.
The Postmistress is a tale of three unforgettable women, of lost innocence, of what happens to love when those we cherish leave us. It examines how we tell each other stories—how we bear the fact that that war is going on at the same time as ordinary lives continue. Filled with stunning parallels to our lives today, it is a remarkable novel.
ABOUT SARAH BLAKE
Sarah Blake lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, the poet Josh Weiner, and their two sons.
A CONVERSATION WITH SARAH BLAKE
Q. What attracted you to this time period, right before the attack on Pearl Harbor?
I played around with when to set the novel—at one point I had Will drafted and in the Army and lost horribly in the Bataan Death March—but the more research I did on the war I grew more and more interested in this three year period from 1938-1941 when all of Europe was at war, Japan and China were marching to the brink, and we were (officially) neutral. I was interested in the time before it was clear, before it was “the good war,” before the full horror of the Holocaust—the things we know now—was evident. What would that feel like? What would it feel like before our role in history, and in WW2 was a given. Against that I wanted to dramatize Frankie’s growing desperationechoed in so many reports of the timeher desire for her country to pay attention. It seemed to me to resonate with so much of what was going on here during the years I was writing the book, roughly 2001-2008, when the country seemed not to be paying attention to the fact that we were in fact in a war. Indeed, we were being told by our leadership to look away.
Q. What kind of research did you do for the novel?
I read many books about the war and the time period, and I went through stacks of Life Magazines from 1940-1945. I spent quite a while at The Museum of Radio.
As well as reading Work Project Administration interviews with people who were living on Cape Cod at the time, I interviewed a woman in her nineties who lived in Provincetown (on which the town of Franklin is loosely based) during the war. I interviewed a war journalist, a midwife and also the postmaster of North Haven Maine who told me in no uncertain terms that there was no such thing as a postmistress. (This was after I’d told him the title of my novel) “It’s postmaster,” he rapped out, “ I don’t care whether it’s a man, a woman or a baboon.”
Q. You have a PhD in Victorian Literature. Does that background influence your writing?
Nineteenth century literature is fantastically two-fisted, and I am clearly influenced by the years I spent studying it closely. On the one hand there are the enormous sweeping novels of Dickens, Zola, Balzac where whole worlds—cities and nations are painstakingly chronicled and set into play; and then, on the other there is the Victorian ghost story which is often a domestic drama where characters are haunted (literally and figuratively) by figments of their own passions and desires—like those found in the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, and Thomas Hardy. I am drawn to the complicated plots and twists and turns of characters’ desires that were a benchmark of Victorian fiction. And in fact, mIy first novel, Grange House, arose out of my desire to try and write a Victorian novel, down to the serpentine sentences, the speech patterns, and the ghost plot.
Q. In The Postmistress, Frankie struggles with how to tell the stories of the people she meets. Is that something you’ve experienced as a writer?
A woman sitting next to me on a plane told me the story of her uncle in Austria under the Nazis, which was more or less the story I gave to Thomas on the train. It is an amazing story of coincidence and escape and it sent shivers down my spine as she told it. The struggle came with how to use it—how to set it so it could shine jewel-like out of the larger frame of the novel; how to make it mean, in other words. On the other hand, when I was interviewing a woman in Provincetown who had lived through the war years there, she told me the story of a German breadwrapper that had washed up on the Back Shore, proof that the German Uboats were out there and not far. For years I tried to use that story in my novel—trying every which way to have a breadwrapper discovered, at one point even staging the running aground of a Uboat on the beach, witnessed by Harry—but in the end, it just didn’t fit, so I had to leave it—perfect story—behind.
Edward R. Murrow, Frankie’s boss, is an important historical figure. Is there a difference between writing about a real person, versus writing about a character you’ve created? In some ways writing about Edward R. Murrow was easier than the other characters because his character, his mode of speaking, his observations are so much a part of the public record. Listening to his broadcasts give us immediate insight into the passion and heart and intellect of a man gifted at translating what he sees and hears into vivid word pictures. I read the transcripts of his broadcasts and was able to imagine how he might speak in conversation, how he might move about in a scene, because of the way in which he wrote. In many ways, he wrote himself.
Q. The Postmistress begins with Frankie at a dinner party years later. Do you have some idea of what happened to Emma and Iris after the events of the novel?
I imagine that the two remain in Franklin, and that Iris becomes a kind of godmother to Emma and her child. I’d like to think that Emma begins to have the experience of having someone watching over her, watching out, the very thing she said she’d never had, and then got so briefly, through Will.