The oldest and most enduring human story is the war story; for every ten thousand or so stories of the exploits of brave men in battle there is perhaps one of the women left on the sidelines. The Postmistress tells the story of three American Penelopes on the eve of our entrance into WWII, each of them waiting for something, left behind in different ways.
Framing the tale is Frankie Bard, a New York journalist who impetuously showed up at Edward Murrow’s studio in London to try to bring the realty of war in Europe to the still-unmoved folks back home. While reporting on conditions in the besieged city, Frankie’s path crosses that of an American doctor who has left his bride, Emma, back home in Massachusetts while he works in London, seeking moral redemption after losing a patient. This chance encounter connects Frankie’s destiny to Emma’s as she hunts for the right story on a refugee train from Germany.
Emma, left all alone in a strange town while her husband seemingly tilts at windmills, is the clearest Penelope of this story. She waits, staring out across the Atlantic, painting her house a bright white so that her prodigal husband can more easily find his way home. Her story is the one we have come to expect from war stories about the women left behind, but it is not the heart of this book – merely the common thread that unites the three women.
The third is Iris James, the town’s 40-year-old single postmaster who opens our story in the gynecologist’s office getting a certificate of virginity because she’s fallen in love and figures every man would appreciate knowing what they were getting. She’s a no-nonsense gal whose true role in this story begins when she makes the uncharacteristically irrational decision to not deliver a letter.
I enjoyed very much the way these three stories danced around each other, touching lightly and spinning away, finally nestling together at the end in a little knot of hope amidst pain – and pain amidst hope. The characters felt real and likely to me – like real women who might have lived these lives in a time period so often painted with the saturated Hollywood colors of "history." All three of them are so strong in ways that real women are strong, and break in ways that real women break. Even though the author admits to deviations from historical reality, this book has the sense of being a true story.
And, after all, as Neil Gaiman said: "Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and adventures are the shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgotten."