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Telling Stories Of War, One Person At A Time

Feb 10, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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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."

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."

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