Book review: The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

I picked this book up completely at random  early in November, and started listening to it around the time of the Parisian terrorist attacks.

As present-day America fell once again into a fierce debate over refugees and our responsibilities in the world, I listened to the debates of 1940, when even during wartime, we had a German visa quota for 27,370.

And, of course, those German refugees were mostly Jews, though that wasn’t widely acknowledged, for good or ill. Jews, remember, were not very popular in America at that time. Americans did not want them to come.

Then I listened to this one reporter, Frankie Bard, embark on an assignment to talk to the refugees moving across Europe. She took one of the first recording devices (a huge heavy box with discs that only held ninety minutes of recording time) onto the trains, and all she did was ask them their names, where they were from, where they were going. Occasionally they told her more. (Note: Blake admits in the afterword that this recording device didn’t exist until 1943, but she took literary privilege in slipping it in two years earlier.)

At one point, she meets another American who really wants to bang her and is skeptical of her mission, telling her she needs a frame for this story, that she can’t just present these snippets of human life, and also “what’s the point of this body if you don’t use it, sweetheart?”

She looks at him, says, “I am using it,” and walks out.

And I realized what’s she doing is exactly what the Humans of New York photojournalist, Brandon Stanton, is doing today, in New York, around the world, and in refugee camps this year. As he has illustrated so splendidly, to enormous success — no, you really don’t need more of a frame than just their own words.

I was a little skeptical of the historical accuracy overall for a while, such as the prevalence of women war journalists — but it turns out they did very much exist during WWII, though they often had as hard of a time of it as you might imagine.

However, there was at least one thing Blake definitely got wrong. Frankie once described seeing the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster all over London, which it was not. The British government printed it in case of an invasion which didn’t happen, so it really wasn’t seen until it was discovered recently in a bookstore.

As for the other parts of the book: I’m afraid it sunk into a lot of melodramatic ridiculousness. I didn’t care that much about the going-ons in Franklin, Massachusetts, except for the realism in how they mistrusted Otto, ugh. I really got sick of how they coddled Emma, though I got really fed up when she finally read Will’s in-case-of-my-death letter, and it was all sentimental nonsense, with zero practical information as for how she’s going to be supported after his death, in that society where women had very few options to support themselves. Absolutely infuriating. Plus the whole plotline with him running away to London like a punk was so irritating — he was behaving cowardly, shirking his responsibilities as a new husband. Ugh.

However — the journalism/refugee side of the story was excellent and very timely, so I’ll give it a couple stars for that.

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