Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith

Historical Fiction.  This work is based on actual historical circumstances and some of the people in the work (e.g. the young lieutenant) did actually exist and participate in these events.  This is one of the better books I have read in some time, and I have been on a sort of streak of good books lately, if that means anything.  It is difficult to find a book that tells a story about WWI and that is not a long droning on of historical facts only (names, dates, battles, dry as a bone, list after list).  Finding anything related to WWI actually, is a fairly challenging enterprise in comparison to works having to do with WWII, which seem to overwhelm the literary marketplace.  This novel is worth your time, if for no other reason than to think about the actual people, as real human beings,  who lived through WWI, The Great Depression, and faced the inevitability of a devastating second world war.  Sometimes fiction makes it more real for us because we can obtain a better sense of daily life, of the thoughts people had, and of their very real emotions.

This is about the mothers, the women who endured the loss of their children, struggled through The Great Depression with their heads held high, and who did not complain but made due with what they had and could work for, while still maintaining kindness and hope for the future.  They always call the WWII folks "The Greatest Generation," but there were mothers who raised those children with those values.  These women, who had already endured enough suffering for one lifetime before those events even occurred, had to send even more children or grandchildren over to Europe to die for another war that they once again did not understand, but they did so anyway, again without complaint, under the auspices of patriotism.

Now, with something seemingly so heavy you might think this is a dark and serious book, but it is not and the same time that it is, which is difficult to explain.  The history is accurate and tragic, but the women make it endearing, entertaining, and fun to read!  The characters in here are varied but delightful and they experience some pretty comical stuff.  Somehow the author managed to represent a great variety of  Americans at this time, through her inclusion of characters representing hearty New England women, African-Americans from the south, newly emigrated Irish, Jews fleeing Russian persecution, and two elite women suffering their own turmoils despite their privileged lives: one who most certainly had postpartum depression and who was incarcerated in a mental institution, several times,  against her will by her philandering husband, and the other who was suffering from heart problems but told nobody so she could go on the trip.

The story is of the Gold Star Mothers, who the U.S. Congress sent over to France on "pilgrimages," so that they could finally see the graves of their sons.  When their children were killed in WWI, they were initially given a choice of having them either sent home (on their own expense) or to be "patriots" like the president and his wife, who chose to have their sons buried in France where they died.  The women, for various reasons chose to have their sons buried there, and now were finally able to go see the graves and say goodbye, fully funded and treated to first-class accommodations by the government.  The various characters give you an excellent idea of the strength of these women, from all different walks of life, and the relief and joy they felt in each other's company.  

It is not a girly book, it is not cliche, and it is an examination of so many things that I simply cannot believe she fit all of this into one average sized novel.  I think April Smith is one heck of a writer and she must have an incredible editor on her side.  You easily picture Maine, Boston, New York, oversea travel on ships, Paris, and the French countryside, but you do not realize the author is doing it because you are having such a grand time getting to know these funny women!  Although they truly define work ethic and endurance, you do not feel that the author is shoving it in your face, she is merely telling the tale of a few lives, and how they came to know each other on this unique journey.  I cannot recommend this novel enough, it is worth everybody's time.  I learned a good deal and came to know and adore these characters!

And so it goes...
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