The Postmistress is a World War Two novel with a difference. Most of the novel is set in a small New England town in 1940-41, just before the U.S. enters the war, when Americans are deeply divided about whether to go to war or not.
This novel has three main characters. The first is Iris, the titular postmistress (or postmaster as she prefers to be called), who delights in the orderly transfer of information in her small town. The second is Emma, the doctor’s young wife, whose husband goes overseas even before America declares war, to help with the effects of the London Blitz. Emma already has tragedy in her background, having lost her whole family to the Spanish flu epidemic when she was just a child. Now she hopes not to lose her new husband as well. Finally, there is young American journalist Frankie Bard, whose voice on the radio carries the news from London back to America — until she becomes intrigued by what’s happening to Jews in occupied Europe, and makes a life-changing journey into Europe to record the voices of people trying to escape the horror that nobody yet knows as the Holocaust.
At the core of this novel are two letters addressed to Emma that unlock the secret of her husband’s fate in England. One passes through Iris’s hands in the post office; the other is carried by hand from England to America by Frankie Bard. Neither is ever delivered: though both women, in their different professions, are deeply committed to telling the truth and passing along messages, they each, separately, decide that this is a message that should not be delivered. How they reach those decisions and how the war affects each woman’s committment to truth-telling — particularly Frankie’s, after the horror she witnesses among Jewish refuges fleeing the Nazi occupation — is the heart of this spare yet complex novel of women in wartime.