They walked through the park and continued along Boulevard Saint Michel, the words freely bubbling out, about how Sammy had joined the army after his grandfather died, the prayer she repeated several times a day while he was overseas, neighbors who helped with the farm work, the shameful wish that somewhere along the line she’d had another baby. The writer listened, the notebook filled up, and Cora could feel something lift, as if she’d tossed that thorny secret over her shoulder, left it to the pond and the flower beds and the bittersweet afternoon light.
(from A Star for Mrs. Blake)
A Star for Mrs. Blake is a novel about the thousands of American woman who traveled to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Verdun, France, in the 1930s to visit the graves of their sons and daughters who died during World War I. Set in 1931, the novel focuses on a handful of women from different walks of life who were brought together in their grief. April Smith centers her novel on Cora Blake, a librarian and cannery worker in Deer Isle, Maine, whose son, Sammy, enlisted after lying about his age and died toward the end of the war. She is tasked with coordinating the other mothers in her party for the trip to France.
Smith shows how these women came together as friends but also how the differences in race and social class caused friction. She shifts back and forth between the points of view of the Gold Star Mothers and even gives readers a glimpse of the massive military operation behind the tours by including the viewpoints of the army officer and the nurse that accompanied the women to France. Arranging the travel and accommodations for thousands of women at a time as they made their way to New York City, then to Paris, then to Verdun was a massive undertaking, and as Smith shows, things didn’t always go smoothly. The differences in accommodations based on race are highlighted, with the white Gold Star Mothers given the best rooms, food, and service and the black Gold Star Mothers — despite making the same sacrifice and suffering the same intense grief — given dormitory/cafeteria-like service.
A Star for Mrs. Blake is a well-written novel about a little known aspect of history, and Smith’s storytelling is fantastic. I really got a sense of who these women were, the differences in their circumstances, and the intensity of their grief. Smith covers so much ground, from the mothers’ back stories to their shared journey to the graves and the battlefield, from the soldiers who survived with deformities and both hid behind and were able to live because of facial masks to the new generation of soldiers slowly marching toward the next world war.
This is a slow-building, character-driven novel. It’s not until the half-way point in the novel that the women make their way to Verdun, and even though the slow pace meant I read this book more slowly, the more thoughtful, reflective prose matches the journey the mothers take. Once the women arrive in France, the book picks up steam, as their faith in the government their sons served is tested and tragedy strikes. A Star for Mrs. Blake is fascinating look at a government program in which 6,693 women traveled to France over a period of three years and powerful story about the bonds between mothers and their children and the long-lasting impact of war.
Disclosure: I received A Star for Mrs. Blake from Knopf for review.
© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.