Monday, September 27, 2010

The Postmistress - Discussion by Susan part III

On the tale of two letters - the one the postmistress intercepts from Will's landlady on his apparent missing status - and the letter Frankie takes from Will after his death. (Q9) The postmistress, Iris, was so regimented and dedicated to the rules of her job that I was surprised when she even hesitated much less opened the letter and then did not deliver it. I do think she spared Emma the period of not knowing - from the time Will was missed by his landlady until the arrival of the official letter of his death, Emma went from hope of hearing from her husband, straight to some definite news, skipping that period of uncertainty. (Q10) For Frankie, the encounter with Will and the resulting letter in her possession was a personal experience rather than a job-related journalistic one, so on a personal level she wanted to deliver the letter herself, but after meeting Emma was not able to go through with either giving her the letter or telling Emma about Will's last night, which I thought was very uncharacteristic of Frankie. In the end she did act like a journalist again, not want to be a part of Emma's story, just an onlooker.

Is life just a series of random events or does everything happen for a reason? (Q11) At first this story seemed random, but of course after all the story lines came together it now seems that one event led to another, cause and effect. I have often said 'everything happens for a reason' (usually after something bad happens, trying to see the silver lining) and now that you have made me think about it, I do believe this is true. (Q13) For example, after losing his first patient, Will's feeling of failure (instilled early by his father), he answered the call of the girl on the radio and followed his desire to try to prove himself once again in a bigger theatre, helping the masses of injured in Europe - with so many people who need him, he is bound to do some good to make up for what he considers a failure at home.

(Q14) Historical novels give us a different perspective of war and history than we had in the textbooks in school, a personal viewpoint of the times and places. And of course since there always seems to be a war going on somewhere, we can use these past experiences of people and war to apply to today. (Q15) Otto wisely refuses to tell the townspeople that he’s Jewish out of fear. Jews were being persecuted in Europe, there are prejudices worldwide, so why not err on the side of caution.

(Q16) The request for the certificate of virginity was just strange to me, especially in the early 40s, I don't know why Iris even thought of doing that and actually went through with it. I imagine the doctor had a great story to tell for years after that. (Q17) Frankie is surprised to find Americans calmly going about their lives while war rages in Europe. Out of sight, out of mind. Sure there is a war going on in Europe, sure there were daily radio stories about it, but there was a whole ocean between here and there, just turn off the radio, and all will be fine here, either complacency or a coping mechanism.

~posted by Susan of patchwork reflections

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

TP ~ second set of DQs

9. If you were Iris, would you have delivered the letter?  Why or why not?  Was she wrong not to deliver it? What good, if any, grew up in the gap of time Emma didn’t know the news? What was taken from Emma in not knowing immediately what happened?

Edward R. Murrow
10. Seek Truth. Report it. Minimize Harm. That is the journalist’s code, and it haunts Frankie during the book. Why wasn’t Frankie able to deliver the letter or tell Emma about meeting Will?  For someone whose job was to deliver the news, did she fail?

11. Will says that “everything adds up,” but Frankie disagrees, saying that life is a series of “random, incomprehensible accidents.”  Which philosophy do you believe?  Which theory does The Postmistress make a better case for?

12. After Thomas tells his story of escape, the old woman in the train compartment says “There was God looking out for you at every turn.” Thomas disagrees. “People looked out. Not God.” He adds, “There is no God. Only us.” How does this novel raise the questions of faith in wartime? How does this connect to the decisions Iris and Frankie make with regard to Emma?

13. Why do you think Maggie’s death compels Will to leave for England?

14. What are the pleasures and drawbacks of historical novels? Is there a case to be made that this book is not about the 1940’s so much as it uses the comfortable distance of that time and place in order to ask questions about war?

15. Why does Otto refuse to tell the townspeople that he’s Jewish?  Do you think he’s right not to do so?

16. Why is the certificate of virginity so important to Iris? What does it tell us about her character?

17. When Frankie returns to America, she finds it impossible to grasp that people are calmly going about their lives while war rages in Europe.  What part does complacency play in this story?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Postmistress - Discussion by Susan part II

One of the Jewish refugees tells Frankie about his story of escape, ending with "There is no God. Only us." The question of faith had to be front and center in the minds and hearts of these desperate people running for their lives, being persecuted because of their religious belief. Wartime and questioning faith go hand in hand, starting with, "How can God allow this to happen?" and ending up separating out devout believers and discouraged previous believers forced to be nonbelievers. (Q-5) I don't think that the decisions Iris and Frankie made in regard to Emma had so much to do with faith as with protection and softening the blow of bad news.

(Q-6) This "last summer of innocence for the United States before it was drawn into WWII" could be compared to the summer of 2001, when no one would have believed American would be attacked on 9/11 and subsequently war declared. The difference is in the novel the Americans are apprehensive of just such an attack, well at least Harry was on the lookout!

(Q-7) The background of the characters is something I did not think about before reading this question (one of the perks of discussion questions), but now that their various backgrounds have been pointed out, it does not necessarily change my opinion of them. The fact that Emma was an orphan makes me think that she probably felt abandoned when Will left for Europe, it probably brought up some old feelings of helplessness. Knowing that Emma was an orphan probably made Will want to take care of her and protect her, which worked out fine until his own demons surfaced. After losing a patient, feelings of failure instilled early by his drunken father surfaced and drove him to the war where he thought he could make up for his failures and losing one patient by saving others. The fact that Frankie grew up in a city makes her strong and worldly, with daily opportunities to interact with different types of people, which could have been a major factor in shaping her personality into the woman she became.

(Q-8) The individual stories of people and the affect war has on each one is what Frankie is telling, making it easier for her listeners to identify with the victims, the fact that they were listening to a story about a real person, sometimes hearing their actual voices from the disk recorder, brings the horror of war home faster than hearing news of entire cities being bombed or statistics of total death count, as I said earlier, leave that for the history books. Like Frankie's listeners on the radio, we as readers of this story are similarly affected by her style of storytelling and war reporting.

This discussion has made me appreciate the book much more than when I first read it, I enjoy the process and dissection and learning.

~posted by Susan of patchwork reflections

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Postmistress - Discussion by Susan

I picked up this book, The Postmistress, at our local library, at first drawn by the beautiful cover - the old tattered letters, the beautiful dried rose. Then on further inspection I read this recommendation: "A beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that I'm telling everyone I know to read." - Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. Having just finished (and loved) The Help, I took this recommendation very seriously.

The Postmistress is about 3 women whose lives come together in the fate of a letter, the postmistress of Franklin, Massachusetts is Iris James, in the same little Cape Cod town is Emma Fitch the doctor's wife, and then reporting from London is Frankie Bard, a journalist delivering daily broadcasts over the radio on the war in Europe.

At first I had a hard time getting past the randomness and getting caught up into the story, actually wondering at times why it was titled so - as the story seemed to be more about Frankie than Iris. But as is usually the case, the lives of the different characters collided and resulted in a moving story.

Like a quilt there are many connecting threads that bind these different people together, the daily broadcasts from London delivered by Frankie and listened to by Iris, Emma, and Will; the daily letters written between Emma and her husband Will and delivered by the postmistress Iris; the shared experience by Iris and Frankie of keeping a letter from Emma; the fact that the letters stop brings these three women together.

All the pieces of this patchwork story are woven together - the smaller pieces of the quilt are the many letters that pass through the hands of the postmistress, all the people of the small town, the desperate voices of the refugees on the disk recorder, the love stories between Iris and Harry, Will and Emma.

I can picture this quilt story, with the smaller pieces becoming filler around the prominent central story lines - the 3 women and the 3 key letters, sewn onto a background of underlying fear and danger of war. The pieces are all intertwined and connected by the distinct voice coming through the radio, the voice that makes everyone stop and listen and pay attention, (Q-1) unlike today's news broadcasts that are scripted and rehearsed and canned, only feeling real when something like 9/11 happens and the news has to be reported spontaneously as it happens.

Frankie's sometimes emotional voice paints a picture of the war that is moving and scary and very real to her listeners. (Q-3) The fact that she is a woman makes the people on the other side of the radio - her listeners - perk up and listen, her woman's perspective, her female voice so different than all the other reporters gives her the advantage of catching their attention.

(Q-2) Frankie tells just a little part of the bigger picture or story going on, it would be impossible to tell the whole story at that point in time, that would be something for the history books to attempt down the road.

The author paints a picture of the radio as a focal point in the home or post office, with people gathering around for the news, this is part of our history, the history of technology. (Q-4) The quaint way the news and mail is delivered in this story may make you wish for simpler times, but in reality today's instant delivery of news and information is, I believe, much better - progress.

(discussion of questions 1-4 here, remainder will follow)

~posted by Susan of patchwork reflections

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Redefining hero

Iris James, the postmistress, is listening to "that gal" on the radio, as Frankie Bard redefines what a hero is.  This long quote (from pages 119-120) was the most memorable quote (for me) in the entire book:
Iris had come to a stop in front of the radio perched on the shelf in the sorting room of the post office above the hot plate and her teakettle.

"Waiting and watching.  Weeping into your sleeves -- these are not the traits of heroes, neither Ulysses, nor Aeneas, and not Joshua.  Think, rather, of Penelope.  Think of all the women down through the years who have watched and waited -- but who, like the boys with their horse, wept and picked themselves up and went on -- and you will have a small sense, then, of the heroes here.  The occupied, the bombed, and the very, very brave.  This is Frankie Bard in London.  Good night."

Iris reached for the knob and slowly turned it to the right.  She didn't, as a rule, like the sound of that gal's voice, didn't like the undercurrent that seemed always to run through it that she held the truth in her hand and everyone better damn well take a look.  Nonetheless -- Iris stood back rom the radio and crossed her arms -- she was fairly sure that the radio gal had just redefined the nature of a hero.  She considered the black box.  Yes, she was certain that that was what Miss Frankie Bard had done.

TP ~ first set of DQs

1. Much of The Postmistress is centered on Frankie’s radio broadcasts — either Frankie broadcasting them, or the other characters listening to them.  How do you think the experience of listening to the news via radio in the 1940s differs from our experience of getting news from the television or the internet? What is the difference between hearing news and seeing pictures, or reading accounts of news? Do you think there is something that the human voice conveys that the printed word cannot?

2. “Get in. Get the story. Get out.” That is Murrow’s charge to Frankie. Does this story make you question whether it’s possible to ever really get the whole story? Or to get out?

3. Early in the novel, Frankie reflects on the fact that most people believed that “women shouldn’t be reporting the war.”  Do you think that Frankie’s gender influences her reporting?  How does Frankie deal with being a female in a male-dominated field? And do you think female reporters today are under closer scrutiny because of their gender?

4. When Thomas is killed, Frankie imagines his parents sitting miles away, not knowing what has happened to their son and realizes there is no way for her to tell them.  Today it is rare that news can’t be delivered. In this age of news 24/7, are we better off?

5. After Thomas tells his story of escape, the old woman in the train compartment says “There was God looking out for you at every turn.” Thomas disagrees. “People looked out. Not God.” He adds, “There is no God. Only us.” How does this novel raise the questions of faith in wartime? How does this connect to the decisions Iris and Frankie make with regard to Emma?

6. The novel deals with the last summer of innocence for the United States before it was drawn into WWII and before the United States was attacked.  Do you see any modern-day parallels? And if so, what?

7. We know that Emma was orphaned, that Will’s father had drinking problems, that Iris’s brother was killed in the First War, and that Frankie grew up in a brownstone in Washington Square.  How do these characters’ backgrounds shape the decisions that they make?  And if we didn’t have this information, would our opinion of the characters and their actions change?

8. Discuss the significance of the Martha Gellhorn quote at the beginning of the book, “War happens to people, one by one. That is really all I have to say, and it seems to me I have been saying it forever.” What stance towards war, and of telling a war story does this reveal? How does it affect your reading of The Postmistress?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Postmistress ~ book for September

Our book for September is The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, published in 2010.  In this YouTube video the author gives us the story behind The Postmistress.  I enjoyed the many pictures and headlines from that era shown here.

What would happen if a postmistress
chose not to deliver the mail?