Sarah Blake's 'The Postmistress': Telling Stories Of War, One Person At A Time The Postmistress, a new novel by Sarah Blake, tells two stories set during the early days of World War II. In the first, an American radio reporter sends back dispatches from London during the Blitz, and in the second, two residents of a small Massachusetts town respond to those reports.

Telling Stories Of War, One Person At A Time

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It's the fall of 1940. German bombs are pulverizing London, and a young woman named Frankie Bard is on the radio, a Murrow girl broadcasting the war from Europe. She's alongside screaming British anti-aircraft gunners as they fire shells at waves of German bombers. She's underground with the frightened masses packed into bomb shelters.

Frankie Bard is one of the main characters in a new novel by Sarah Blake titled "The Postmistress." Edward R. Murrow tells his young protege: Don't say the streets are rivers of blood, say that the little policeman I usually say hello to every morning is not there today.

Ms.�SARAH BLAKE (Author, "The Postmistress"): His great power, I think, was that he was able to bring the war home in these tiny human details and always -it seems that's how he instructed his reporters: to give the human side of the war, be honest, be neutral, and speak like yourself.

And when I read that, that was a very sort of generative piece of information because Frankie Bard, my character, of course, can't remain neutral. And that, for me, is the one of the central questions of the novel, of how is it, if you - 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 you and that you are implicated in some way or another?

And so Frankie, her sort of 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.

BLOCK: I wonder if you can read a section from the book where the narrator is describing how Frankie is processing the changes she's seeing in London during this time, during the blitz.

Ms.�BLAKE: (Reading) One day, someone you saw every day was there, and the next he was not. This was the only way Frankie had found to report the blitz: the small policeman on the corner, the grocer with a bad eye, the people you walked to work with, in the shops, on the bus, the people you didn't know but who walked the same route as you, who wove the anonymous fabric of your life. Buildings, gardens, the roof line, one could describe their absence. But for the disappearance of a man or a little boy or the woman who used to wait for the bus at the same time as she did, Frankie had found few words. Once they were here, and I saw them.

BLOCK: And Frankie Bard's voice on the radio, telling these stories of the people she has seen killed in front of her eyes in London, that voice goes across the ocean and lands, in your book, in homes in a tiny town on Cape Cod, coming in through their radios. That's the connection.

Ms.�BLAKE: And it's heard there by, in this small town, Franklin, Massachusetts, by two other characters who, on the one hand, really don't want to hear the news but on the other can't keep themselves from it.

BLOCK: They can't turn her off.

Ms.�BLAKE: They can't turn her off, and the - one of them, Iris James, who is the postmistress of the town, who very much prides herself on keeping order in her 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 the pitch too high, that it can't really be as bad as all that. Surely, the order will prevail.

And the other woman listening is Emma Fitch, who's the newly arrived, new wife of the doctor in town, and she listens to Frankie's broadcasts with a little bit more personal interest because early on in the novel, her husband goes to help out in the blitz.

BLOCK: He's a doctor.

Ms.�BLAKE: He is a doctor. He is the town doctor. And she feels very much that the war has robbed her of her - basically the beginning of her life. So she's certainly not thinking altruistically, but at the same time - 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. But it's very personal.

BLOCK: Her husband.

Ms.�BLAKE: Her husband. Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: Many of the stories that Frankie Bard starts telling, she gathers by going on trains that are traveling across Europe, bearing Jewish refugees who've been fleeing the pogroms, fleeing the Nazis, and she has with her a portable disc recorder, where she's capturing their voices, technology that wouldn't have actually existed at the time.

Ms.�BLAKE: At the time, the technology the portable disc recorder came into wide use probably two years after the time that I set this novel. But for me, so much of the novel is about trying to you know, asking 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, she's going to get the story that will turn America's heads, comes to sort of stumble upon the fact that there is no story beyond the single human voices that she's gathering.

So she realizes that if she can collect voices, she can then broadcast them and perhaps that really is the story. There's no narrative. It's just simply, here are these human beings speaking, and they were alive, and they were on this train.

BLOCK: You describe it this way, that their stories lay in the edges around what could be told. What do you mean?

Ms.�BLAKE: I think that - this is speaking from myself. When I look at photographs in the newspaper, when I hear stories on the radio, I am always thinking about what happened in the few seconds immediately after that photograph was taken, the edges after you know, that is the frame of a single moment.

I mean, Martha Gellhorn's quote, Martha Gellhorn, the great war reporter of most of the decades of the 20th century, she has a quote that starts my book, which is: War happens to people, one by one.

And I think in some ways, the idea of trying to move around the edges of the photograph is really the attempt to get each person and each person's story, not the sort of wide abstraction of war.

BLOCK: It's interesting, though, because the rest of that quote from Martha Gellhorn is: That is really all I have to say, and it seems to me I have been saying it forever. And Frankie Bard, your character, comes across this same sense of despair. She is telling these stories and she can tell or she thinks that no one is listening. They're not resonating back home in any tangible way.

Ms.�BLAKE: That's right.

BLOCK: Nothing's being done for the Jewish refugees.

Ms.�BLAKE: That's right. One of the things that the more I researched the war reporting of the time, I mean, 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 in which it ended up landing in the newspaper. The story of what was going on for the Jews was always embedded in the middle of papers. It was never a kind of front-page story for a long, long time.

And Frankie, at one point, sort of quotes Martha Gellhorn, saying that Martha Gellhorn had said: We belong to a federation of Cassandras. And that really seemed to me, over and over, the kind of despair and worry of the reporters that were there in the late '30s and, you know, early '40s, before it was the good war. That's the thing. Nobody could really knew where it was going; nobody knew the ending.

BLOCK: Sarah Blake, her new novel is titled "The Postmistress." Thanks for coming in.

Ms.�BLAKE: Thank you so much.

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