April Smith, creator of the popular Detective Ana Grey novels, makes a change of pace with A Star for Mrs. Blake. This moving and surprising novel is the account of a Gold Star Mother’s sojourn to the fields of Verdun where her only son was killed, along with so many other young men, during World War I.
The reader would expect such a story to be moving, but what’s surprising is the toughness that Smith gives to her characters, especially Cora Blake, the Gold Star Mother. But why shouldn’t she be tough? When we first meet her, it’s during a freezing cold Depression-era Maine winter. Her parents are dead, her son is dead and she’s raising her motherless nieces. She and the girls are saved from penury when she gets a job in a sardine cannery that she must walk to because there’s no more gas to fuel the bus. Somehow, she’s managed to survive: She even has a suitor. Then, the letter comes, inviting her to visit the grave of her son in France. She decides to look forward to her voyage the way her seafaring parents looked forward to their trips around the world.
Cora’s sojourn puts her in more modest company, however. She becomes part of a group that includes an Irish housekeeper, a Jewish chicken farmer’s wife, a socialite and, almost, an African-American seamstress. The near inclusion of Mrs. Russell is our first reminder that, Depression and fallout from World War I aside, things aren’t quite right in America.
Still, most of the folks Cora meets are delightful company, including her minders, the plucky nurse Lily Barnett and the upstanding, infinitely patient and cheerful Lt. Hammond. Cora also strikes up a friendship with journalist Griffin Reed. Disfigured in the war, he’s a morphine addict who’s being kept by the artist who helped design the mask that conceals his wounds.
But as entertaining as the trip is, 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. Reed’s shattered face, rows of gravestones on a field, live ordnance found too near to a picnic area—all remind the reader of the grotesque wastefulness of the war that began a century ago. Through Cora Blake’s story, Smith explores the experience of some of the good, ordinary and resourceful people who were caught up in it.