Sarah Blake's novel, The Postmistress, is set in London in the fall of 1940. German bombs are pulverizing the city, and a young woman named Frankie Bard is on the radio. A protege of Edward R. Murrow, broadcasting the war from Europe, she's alongside screaming British anti-aircraft gunners as they fire shells at waves of German bombers, and underground with the frightened masses, packed into bomb shelters.
Murrow gives Frankie instructions on how to relate the devastation on the streets to her listeners. She shouldn't describe the streets as rivers of blood, he tells her, but simply note that "the little policeman I usually say 'Hello' to every morning is not there today."
Murrow's great power, Blake tells Melissa Block, was his ability to bring the war home in "tiny human details."
"That's how he instructed his reporters to give the human side of the war," Blake says. "Be honest, be neutral, and speak like yourself. And when I read that, that was a very generative piece of information, because Frankie Bard, my character, of course can't remain neutral."
For Blake, Frankie's dilemma brought up one of the central questions of the novel.
"How is it, especially if you're charged with delivering the news or bearing the news, how do you manage the fact that it's happening right in front of it and you are implicated in some way or another?" Blake asks. "And so Frankie, her outrage and her sorrow and her passion come from, I think, the dance that she's trying to dance between neutrality and clear-eyed observation."
The Postmistress By Sarah Blake Hardcover, 336 pages Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam List price: $25.95
Frankie's dance takes shape in reports relayed back to America, and alights on a pair of listeners who hear the stories on their radios in the small — and fictional — Massachusetts town of Franklin. Each of the two listeners resists Frankie's reports, but neither is able to turn away completely.
"They can't turn her off," Blake says. "One of them, Iris James, who is the postmistress of the town — who very much prides herself on keeping order in the town by keeping the mail flowing, and she's the keeper of all the secrets — is slightly annoyed by Frankie's broadcast, feeling that maybe she's turning up pitch too high, that it can't really be as bad as all that. Surely order will prevail."
The other woman is Emma Fitch, newly arrived in Franklin and newlywed to Will, the town's doctor, who has traveled to London to assist the British with their medical response to the Blitz.
"She listens to Frankie's broadcasts with a little bit more personal interest," Blake says. "She feels very much that the war has robbed her of basically the beginning of her life. So she's certainly not thinking altruistically, and so doesn't want to hear, so much, how bad it is. At the same time, there's that funny circumstance where she almost listens to the news in case there's any news of Will, which of course there couldn't be."
Frankie Bard gathers many of her stories on trains across Europe, recording stories of Jews fleeing persecution on a portable disc recorder. It's a technical anachronism — such a device wouldn't come to wide use until at least a couple of years after the book's setting — but Blake says it enabled her to grapple with an essential question.
"For me, so much of the novel is trying to ask the question, 'Is it ever possible to tell the whole story?' And more and more, Frankie's trajectory over the course of the novel, having been this brash intrepid reporter ... who's going to get the story that will turn America's heads, comes to stumble upon the fact that there is no story beyond the single human voices she's gathering," Blake says. "So she realizes that if she can collect voices, then she can then broadcast them and perhaps that really is the story. There is no narrative. It's just, simply, here are these human voices speaking, and they were alive and they were on this train."
In The Postmistress, Frankie finds inspiration in the words and example of the real-life war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who covered World War II along with many of the other military conflicts of the 20th century.
"War happens to people one by one," goes the Gellhorn quote that opens Blake's novel, and Frankie shares both Gellhorn's sense of despair and her worry that the stories she tells are not resonating with listeners back in America, for whom the war, in the early 1940s, was still a distant concern.
"The more I researched the war reporting of the time, there was, it seems to me, enormous disconnect between the reporters who were in Europe who could clearly see what was going on, and the way in which it was either allowed to be reported or the way it ended up landing in the newspaper," Blake says. "The story of what was going on for the Jews was always embedded in the middle of papers."
Was anyone listening? Frankie's dispatches reach the ears of at least two women in small-town Massachusetts, but Blake understands how reporters near the front lines of war could feel alone, or unheard.
"Frankie, at one point, sort of quotes Martha Gellhorn, saying ... 'We belong to a federation of Cassandras,' and that really seemed to me, over and over, the kind of despair of reporters that were there in the late '30s and early '40s before we finally entered the war in '42. Before it was 'The Good War.' That's the thing. Nobody really knew where it was going, nobody knew the ending."
Excerpt: 'The Postmistress'
The Postmistress By Sarah Blake Hardcover, 336 pages Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam List price: $25.95
There were years after it happened, after I'd returned from the town and come back here to the busy blank of the city, when some comment would be tossed off about the Second World War and how it had gone — some idiotic remark about clarity and purpose — and I'd resist the urge to stub out my cigarette and bring the dinner party to a satisfying halt. But these days so many wars are being carried on in full view of all of us, and there is so much talk of pattern and intent (as if a war can be conducted like music), well, last night I couldn’t help myself.
'What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail?' I asked.
'Don’t tell me any more,' a woman from the far end of the table cried in delight, shining and laughing between the candles. 'I’m hooked already.'
I watched the question take hold. Mail, actual letters written by hand, being pocketed undelivered. What a lark! Anything might happen. Marriages might founder. Or not take place! Candlelight glanced off the silverware into eyes widening with the thought of such a trick. Around the table the possibilities unfurled. A man might escape the bill collector's note. The letter assuring a young man of his first job might never arrive, forcing him to look elsewhere.
'And be perfectly happy,' suggested one of the older men, smiling at the irony of it.
'And would she tell anyone about it?'
'Oh no,' the woman across from me decided quickly. 'That would spoil the pleasure.'
'Oh, so she did it for pleasure?' Her companion gave her bare shoulder a little tap.
'No. Pleasure is too small a theme,' the host pronounced. 'She must be a believer of some sort. A scientist of a kind. Someone who planned to watch the machinery grind down. A saboteur.' He smiled across the candles at his wife. 'It’s a great story.'
'In fact,' I put in drily, 'she wasn't any of those things.'
Then came the quiet.'
'Hold on,' said one of the men. 'This is true?'
'Then it's monstrous,' the first woman piped up. 'If it's real, then it's horrible, and — '
'Illegal,' the host reached over and filled her glass. 'When was this?'
'Nineteen forty- one.'
'Then?' Now the host was shocked. I nodded. Somehow this had deepened the question. These days, errancy cannot go long undetected. Someone can pick up the phone and call. There are e- mails and faxes. But then. When a letter was often the sole carrier of news. The thought of a postmaster tampering with one 's letters home, or out to the boys. It wasn't at all in keeping with our idea of the times.
'It’s the war story I never filed.'
'Because it would have been too much for us?' The host tried to laugh it off.
'It was too much for me,' I answered.
The lark had ended. The host rose abruptly to uncork another bottle.
The woman down at the other end of the table studied me, still unconvinced that I could be telling her the truth. Writers. They are not to be trusted with our hearts.
Never mind, I thought. I am old. And tired of the terrible clarity of the young. And all of you are young these days.
Long ago, I believed that, given a choice, people would turn to good as they would to the light. I believed that reporting — honest, unflinching pictures of the truth — could be a beacon to lead us to demand that wrongs be righted, injustices punished, and the weak and the innocent cared for. I must have believed, when I started out, that the shoulder of public opinion could be put up against the door of public indifference and would, when given the proper direction, shove it wide with the power of wanting to stand on the side of angels.
But I have covered far too many wars — reporting how they were seeded, nourished, and let sprout — to believe in angels anymore, or, for that matter, in a single beam of truth to shine into the dark. Every story — love or war — is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.
Or so it seems to me.
Here is the war story I never filed. I began it at the end of the forties, when I could see quite clearly, and charged myself with getting it right, getting it sharper, all this while. What I knew at the time is pieced together here with the parts I couldn’t have known, but imagine to be true.
And the girl I was — Frankie Bard, radio gal — lives on these pages as someone I knew, once.
— Frances Bard, Washington, D.C.
From The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. Copyright 2010 by Sarah Blake. Reprinted with permission of Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc.