Monday, June 18, 2012

Right as the Mail

I’ve decided to be a joiner here in my first few months in Columbia and I thought I’d join the book club at the Sandhills Library. In May they read The Postmistress. I didn’t finish it in time, so I skipped the book club. (I made it in June, funny story, maybe next Monday’s post ;-)

Anyway, The Postmistress completes my tour of World War II that began in 2010 with Lisa See’s Shanghai Sisters. Then I read The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons about WW2 in Leningrad. Then Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford about San Francisco and On Folly Beach about the southern coast of South Carolina. Then Gilgamesh and Sarah’s Key about an Australian woman in Armenia and an American woman in Paris, respectively. Then The Piano Teacher about Hong Kong.

That’s World War II in Shanghai, Leningrad, San Francisco, Charleston, Australia, Armenia, Paris, and Hong Kong. I was missing England. The Postmistress delivered.

The book tells the stories of three women: a postal official in a small New England town, a doctor’s wife in that same town, and an American reporter in London during the Blitzkrieg.

I know I’m given to tangential worship of the process, but The Postmistress really is about process. It’s about how the maintenance of process can provide security. It’s about how people use predictable things, like the mail service, to judge whether something is odd, and then to decide if that something is odd enough to be dangerous.

Make the connection

The function of a routine is to provide predictability, I’ve written about routine before. It has a way of establishing itself even if we don’t mean for it to. Iris, the postmistress, is the very embodiment of process. She maintains order and consistency with a faithfulness that resembles worship.

Harry, a vigilant citizen who sees the town as ripe for a German invasion, tries to get the post office to lower the flag pole. He cites its likelihood to be used a guidepost by invading ships. Iris dutifully forwards Harry’s request to the Post Master General. Permission is part of the process. As they await a response, Harry’s visits to the post office meld into Iris’s routine and a subtle courtship begins.

It had become something like a joke between them, a running patter, though it wasn’t a joke and she knew it. “I haven’t heard from the post office inspector,” she said.

He lowered his gaze to her face. “It doesn’t worry you?”

She flushed. “We can’t allow ourselves to take things into our own hands like that.”

“Why not?” He slid his hand along the ridge of the gate.

With a small, efficient stab, the question pricked her. They were at odds, she realized, unhappily. (p.84)

Iris’s dedication to the procedures of the post office represents a need to establish some kind of security. For her, and the town she serves, routine, sameness, and predictability substitute for security. Change is decided by others, persons with great power and responsibility, people beyond us. The established guidelines tell us what choices to make. Without having to decide, or having to choose, we are secure. We cannot screw it up; someone has already laid the path. We need only follow it.

I used to think the willingness people had to simply follow the path already worn meant they were too lazy to consider alternatives. It meant they lacked the courage to try something that might fail. It meant they could not be trusted to rally when things got difficult, they prized predictability over possibility.

But when people have something to lose, following the path is not laziness. It’s a specific sacrifice: possibility exchanged for security. If I have to trade, what am I willing to trade? What am I willing to lose if I can’t have it all?


Find the path

In The Postmistress, the doctor leaves his wife behind and goes to London, chasing the war. After the fisherman’s wife dies at his hands, during childbirth, the doctor thinks he must redeem himself. In one scene he confronts the woman reporter, Frankie, whose stories drew him to London.

There was no mistaking the joy in his voice. “Everything matters here,” he said quietly. “Everything adds up.”

She glanced over at him. “Nothing about this adds up.”

“It does,” he said to her. “It’s all there is.”

“That’s nuts,” she retorted angrily. “It’s random as hell out there – that is hell – random, incomprehensible accidents happening night after night. A man calling to his son to run toward him for safety and in the moment that the boy runs, in the twenty steps between them, is hit, is killed –“

“And you saw it.”

She frowned.

“That’s all there is. That’s what I’m saying. You saw it.”

“Nuts.” She shook her head.

“Listen, I came over here because I had some crackpot idea of order – because a woman dies in my care, I thought I ought to go where I could do the most good, help, stand in the way of more death. But you don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t stand in the way of anything.” He was so sure, it was almost electric in the dark. “You can only stand alongside.” (p.175)

It is only through his wife and Frankie that we really know the doctor. Yet he creates a contrast between the witnesses, those who would watch and report and those who would participate.

His sacrifice occurs when he breaks out of the predictability, the “security” his town has wrapped around itself like a blanket. The author, Sarah Blake, seems to be asking if his act was courageous or supreme vanity. At first I leaned toward vanity, the chase to London was his grief overcoming him. Now, though, I can see the real value of that tremendous sacrifice: giving himself for others, nameless, countless others.


Give it context

It may be because this is the most recent in a long list of World War II novels I’ve read. Or it may be that something like a world war has so many dimensions. But I felt Blake had really solidified what some of these other books had only hinted at.

Human beings are plagued with an obsessive insecurity. We tend to keep the larger causes, like our own inevitable death, in check and move day-to-day ignoring them. We establish the parameters we need to secure ourselves so that each day we are not paralyzed by fear. Every day could be chaos without our ability to cope, without the processes we use to ensure predictability.

War destabilizes everything.

Only something as magnificent as a world war could penetrate and affect so many places in all of the same ways simultaneously. World War II’s reach is well documented. The universal insecurity of the era must have been suffocating. May the human race never know that kind of global, omnipresent fear again. Most days we’re all right as the mail.

1 comment:

  1. It is true that when we have something to lose we weigh the loss versus the gain before jumping in. As someone who has jumped in without looking at the loss versus the gain and gotten burned, I like to think I now try to look before I make my move. As always, I enjoy your insight. Looking forward to reading the book.


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