Women in war: Sarah Blake’s new novel looks at World War II from a different angle
Just when you think you’ve read every possible take on World War II, along comes a story like The Postmistress. Though the effects of that worldwide conflict permeate every page of Sarah Blake’s second novel, she takes on the war from a different angle: the home front. Set in 1940, just before the U.S. entered the war, The Postmistress is a subtle, nuanced portrayal of the impact war has on three women: Frankie, a British journalist covering the Blitz; Emma, a newlywed whose doctor husband brings her back to his New England hometown; and Iris, aka the postmistress. These three very different women are ultimately connected by a letter that brings an unwelcome truth back to their small town—and by the shared hardships of a world forever changed by conflict.
Blake, a poet and essayist as well as a novelist, took some time to answer a few questions about the book, her favorite historical novels and the one secret she couldn’t wait to share.
The Postmistress is set during World War II, but there are no battlefield scenes. What inspired you to keep a WWII novel entirely on the home front?
Towards the middle of the book, Frankie Bard writes, “We think we know the story, because there’s a man and a woman sitting together in a funk hole in the dark. There are bombs. It’s a war. There was a war before, and we’ve read the stories; but every story—love or war—is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.” I wanted to try and write a story about women in war, and one that wasn’t about waiting for the men to come home, or about picking up a weapon and fighting, but about making it through the gauntlet of chance that war, it seems to me, thrusts upon human beings. When war is part of daily life, as it was in the Blitz, and as it was in Europe, what does the daily look like?
That daily life is often as harrowing as a battlefield scene would be, with Frankie dodging bombs and Harry looking for German U-boats off the coast of New England. It's a sharp contrast to today, where we are fighting wars but see little to no impact on our day-to-day lives. What do you think about this shift in attitudes?
Ironically, though we have access to almost instantaneous news, I do feel that so much information buffers us from what is happening. To a certain degree I think that hearing news over the radio—through the medium of someone’s voice—or reading the news in a newspaper—by its nature a slower means of apprehending information than merely seeing a visual image—may have been a more potent, more immediate means of getting the news. It’s hard to buffer yourself from the sound of fear, or of sorrow in a radio announcer’s voice as they describe what they saw, or as they record the sound of someone telling you what happened. As always, single human witnesses have a profound impact. I think, for instance, of all the cellphone dispatches that were sent out last spring during the Iranian protests, and how electrifying their impact. To a certain degree, those were a return to the kind of radio broadcasts you might have heard during WWII. I think of Edward R. Murrow’s nightly greeting, “This is London.”
Your novel follows a linear narrative, but the story is carried forward by different characters at different points. How did you approach writing a novel with multiple narrators? Was it a challenge to make sure each woman had her own distinct voice? When did you decide that this was a story about not just one woman, but many?
The novel began many years ago when I had a sudden picture in my head of a woman in a small post office looking down at a letter in her hand and thrusting it into her pocket rather than in one of the mailboxes she was clearly in charge of. Who was that? And what was she doing? And whose letter did she not deliver? That’s how Iris came to be. And then the town of Franklin, and Will and Emma grew out of answering those questions. The novel kept growing, sideways and backwards really, as I tried to get myself to the point at the boxes when Iris holds onto a letter for Emma. Then, about 100 pages into that early draft, Frankie Bard arrived on the bus. I had no idea what she was doing there, just that she was a reporter and had come from Europe. What happened to her in Europe? So, then I went back and wrote that. My challenge at this point was not in keeping the women distinct, but in keeping them together. In some senses I wrote three different novels all of them aiming at that moment of Iris’ at the mailboxes, but it wasn’t until I began to weave the stories together by moving back and forth on the radio broadcasts that I started to see how the three women’s stories could intertwine. And then at that point, I have to say that I had the benefit of a truly gifted editor. Amy Einhorn was able to see how the stories could combine and move in and out of each other, all the while moving forward.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I spoke to a lot of people; and often their memories or information guided the novel in a new direction. Though I had been researching the presence of German U-boats along the coast at this time, it wasn’t until I spoke to a 90 year-old resident of Provincetown, Mass., that I understood the palpable danger people felt at the time. It was she who told me that there were some inhabitants who felt certain the Germans could land on the Back Shore and march up the Cape to Boston. And when a German bread-wrapper washed up on shore, clearly having fallen off a U-boat, the town grew a bit more unified. I tried as hard as I could, in many drafts, to use that bread-wrapper, but couldn’t in the end find a place for it!
For a couple of years I read as much as I could about the history of World War II, trying to understand the timeline of events as much as the cultural and social attitudes at the time. And I visited the Holocaust Museum, the National Postal Museum, and the Museum of Radio. At the same time, I watched movies made between 1939 and 1941—Bette Davis in The Letter, being a little-remembered but wonderful discovery—paying attention to clothing, hairstyles, and slang; and I read novels written during that period, trawling for diction and rhythms of speech. Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Robert Penn Warren’s All the President’s Men were favorites.
At the beginning of the novel, it’s acknowledged that a postmaster not delivering the mail was far more serious in the 1940s than it would be today. What are your views on social media in the 21st century (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, etc.,)? Do you think letters will ever be replaced?
I have to confess to being a bit of a Luddite in terms of social media. I eddied out at email, not following in the rush forward into Facebook, or Twitter, though I do have a Facebook page now, which I approach gingerly. I do think it’s fantastic to be able to be in touch with people right in the very moment, it allows for a kind of global dailiness. But there is nothing like the physical presence of a handwritten letter. I think that being able to hold something in your hand that traveled to get to you, that holds the person writing it in his or her handwriting is very powerful, and for the time that it takes to read the letter, you are with that person who wrote you in a way that email or Facebook cannot replicate. I think, sadly, that this kind of connection will vanish, if it hasn’t already. With it goes too, the art of letter writing, a wonderful mix of personal essay and meditation, gossip and humor.
The Postmistress has already received some rave reviews from readers. As a reader yourself, what are some of your favorite historical novels?
Oh, there are so many! I just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and remain slightly in a Tudor daze—it’s a wide, fantastically made tapestry, an incredible feat that wears its scholarship invisibly. I return repeatedly to Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, which, like the Mantel, utterly absorbs you in another place and time, though this time, improbably, through the sense of smell. And perhaps one of my favorite historical novels—though I’m not sure if it qualifies as such—is Colm Toibin’s The Master, about the inner life of Henry James. But then, I came to love reading through the novels of the 19th century. And I return there. I repeatedly read and reread the Brontes, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy and Henry James.
There are a lot of secrets and information that is withheld in The Postmistress, but in the end, there is no stopping the truth. Do you have a secret you’d finally like to get off your chest?
Yes! That I’m so thankful to have this book out in the world. It has been the secret passion, obsession, joy and trial that I have been living with for the last 10 years. I have been tied to these three women, listening to them—as if I’ve had my ear against a safe waiting to hear the click that would pop the door to set them freely walking and talking, the sign that I had cracked the code on their story at last. It’s been a tremendous process writing this book, and I am so grateful that Iris and Frankie and Emma are out into the world, and no longer talking to me in my head!
What are you working on next?
I am in the very early stages of a novel about an old money WASP family that finds itself at the end of its old money. It takes place over the course of two summers, 1959 and 2009, and moves back and forth in the same old house in Maine, between those time periods and across three generations of women.
Review of The Postmistress
Review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall
Review of Colm Toibin's The Master