A Mother’s Pilgrimage: “A Star for Mrs. Blake” by April Smith (France Book Tours #franceBT)

10 May

ImageImage

A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith. Knopf, 2014.

A Star for Mrs. Blake begins well, continues well in the middle, and finishes well–this is deft storytelling that April Smith has honed in her Ana Grey mystery thriller series and in her writing for television. Any reader can be grateful to be in such confident authorial company. Yet, clearly, this book goes beyond its sureness of craft: it’s the product of Smith’s passion for her subject over many years of research and thought about the real people making the Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages to the American cemeteries in France in the early 1930s. The characters she has created are fictional, but fashioned from genuine historical detail, which is meaningfully applied throughout.  Because this novel is shaped by the course of a very special pilgrimage, it makes sense to talk about it in terms of the sequence of stages through which anyone on pilgrimage will likely pass. I’m adopting the stages mapped out by Phil Cousineau in his book The Art of Pilgrimage, which in turn draws on the “hero’s journey” made famous in the writings of Joseph Campbell.

First, there is the Longing; for mothers whose sons had died in the First World War and were buried overseas, the longing was persistent and palpable. The first such mother we meet in the novel is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother in Deer Isle, Maine, raising her three nieces and mourning the loss of her son Sammy who was killed in Verdun in October 1918. The hard decision many families made not to bring their children’s remains home from the battlefield was a lingering wound; the longing to visit these graves was acute, yet such a trip seemed out of reach. The Call came in 1929, when the U.S. Congress passed legislation which enabled mothers to go on pilgrimage, courtesy of the government, to their sons’ graves in Europe. For Cora Blake, her personal call came in February 1931 when she got a letter of invitation from the War Department. (Here is a sample set of documents sent to a Gold Star Mother in 1930, including invitation, letters, and a handbook of general information for her trip.) Cora learned that her fellow pilgrims would be four other mothers–all very different from each other–and together they would make up “Party A”; they began to exchange letters and prepare for the momentous Departure in June. This part of the story reminded me in a way of Enchanted April, from the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, in which a small group of women who were strangers to each other and from diverse circumstances made the decision to take a trip to Italy together.  The Gold Star Mothers in Party A were on a very different sort of journey, yet it shared some of the same elements of adventure and assertion of personal independence.

Just as Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn before setting out on the road, Party A all had to assemble at their hotel in New York City before boarding an ocean liner bound for the port of Le Havre, France. Cora came by train from Bangor, Maine, stopping in Boston to meet another mother in her group, an Irish maid named Katie McConnell. One by one, the pilgrims arrived, were introduced, and joined the preparations for the European voyage. Smith has brought to convincing life five women with very different temperaments and histories; the incidents along their pilgrim way flow very naturally from these women’s lives.

Image

In venerable medieval fashion, the pilgrims all received special bronze badges to wear during the whole trip. These badges identified them as Gold Star Mothers wherever they went. Smith describes what one woman, a Russian immigrant named Minnie Seibert, felt as she looked around the room where many parties of mothers were seated for a welcome luncheon:

“Every woman at the table–everyone in this enormous room–fat ones, skinny ones, ugly, whatever–wore a Gold Star badge. Abraham [her husband] of course had refused, but Minnie had dutifully worn the torn black ribbon of the mourner for seven days after they got the news that Isaac had been killed–but thirteen years later you didn’t go around wearing a badge. Here, you did. Because, like the rabbi from Bangor had said, the consolation for a mourner is that she shares with others not only this loss but all the misfortunes that come of living a full human life. Here, among those others, Minnie knew she belonged.” (pp. 80-81)

This passage expresses Minnie’s thoughts, but it also captures the anguish and isolation each of the mothers had experienced; losing a child to war still separated them from others despite the intervening years.

Once they arrived in France, the stops along the Pilgrim’s Way for these mothers included several days in Paris, not only as tourists but, it became apparent, as goodwill ambassadors for the American military–not a role they consciously chose or endorsed. The mothers were the focus of much attention, most of it welcome and gracious, but some of it problematic and intrusive. As anticipation was building to get down to the real business of the trip, the women confronted painful questions about the war and the meaning of their sons’ deaths. In terms of the hero’s journey, they found themselves in the Labyrinth, which is sometimes called the Descent, the most confusing and potentially hellish time. Pilgrims in the Labyrinthine part of their journey are often assisted by guides: in this case, Lt. Thomas Hammond and nurse Lt. Lily Barnett, who led Party A; and news reporter Griffin Reed, himself an injured WWI veteran, who would have a special influence on Cora’s life. The Arrival at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery where their sons were buried brought this phase to a climax; the series of visits they made there was handled with tremendous sensitivity and insight by Smith. I was frankly in awe of the beautiful construction of the plot at this point–which I WON’T reveal!  It felt like being there with the mothers and then watching the unexpected unfold. Here is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery as it appeared in 1930.

Image

This picture suggests the immense impact of arriving there, trying to take in the rows upon rows of graves, and then finding the special one with a beloved son’s name on it. Cora had “always imagined Sammy falling alone in suspended space like a stage backdrop, but now she saw a marble forest of young men who were dead, and knew that Sammy was, had been, and always would be in their company.”

The last stage of the hero’s journey–and these pilgrim mothers do emerge as heroes–is Bringing Back the Boon, receiving the gift or gifts from the experience. These can be tangible (crucial objects, talismans, or “souvenirs”) or intangible gifts (knowledge, awakening, and healing)–usually both. Again, this story stars in its unsentimental and emotionally powerful treatment of the resolution for each character. The important thing about going on pilgrimage is that whatever you could imagine ahead of time, you can never really know what it will mean to you until you go there yourself. The same is true of A Star for Mrs. Blake: only by traveling its road and reading to the end can you bring back the boon of this beautiful book.

****************************************************

I am working with author April Smith on a virtual tour for her historical novel: A Star For Mrs. Blake.  Please pay a visit to other stops on the tour at http://francebooktours.com/2014/03/19/april-smith-on-tour-a-star-for-mrs-blake/.

SYNOPSIS

In 1929, The U.S. Congress passed legislation that would provide funding for the mothers of fallen WWI soldiers to visit the graves of their sons in France. Over the course of three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made this trip.  Smith imagines the story of five of these women, strangers who could not be more different from each other. One of them is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother from coastal Maine. Journeying to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the lives of these women are inextricably intertwined as shocking events – death, scandal, and secrets – are unearthed. And Cora’s own life takes an unexpected turn when she meets an American, “tin nose,” journalist, whose war wounds confine him to a metal mask.  [provided by the author]

***

Release date: January 14, 2014
at Knopf

ISBN-13: 978-0307958846

Hardcover, 352 pages

Purchase the book

***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Image

April Smith is the author of the FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mystery series, starting with North of Montana.  She is also an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of dramatic series and movies for television.  She lives in Santa Monica with her husband.

Visit her website.
Get in touch with her on Facebook and Twitter

******

*Note*: I received an electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

Related post:

Advertisements

10 Responses to “A Mother’s Pilgrimage: “A Star for Mrs. Blake” by April Smith (France Book Tours #franceBT)”

  1. TBM May 12, 2014 at 3:33 am #

    I loved that Smith focused on a part of history that not many people are aware of. it’s such a great idea.

    • fictional100 May 12, 2014 at 7:06 pm #

      I agree! I had heard of Gold Star Mothers from WWII, but didn’t know at all about this program to take mothers to Europe in the 1930s. Thanks for visiting!

  2. WordsAndPeace May 12, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    wow, I’m stunned by your amazing review! This is a piece of literature in itself, with the smart idea of focusing on Cousineau’s book for the structure of your review, plus all the other literary references and the essential pictures. thanks so much for the high quality of your review

    • fictional100 May 12, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      Thanks so much for your very kind comments! It was such a pleasure to write about this moving book and be part of the tour.

  3. xn3art May 14, 2014 at 5:40 am #

    Your review is such a soulful journey in and of itself, a voyage into the human hearts of women who are mothers who travel to such a place of impact. Thank you for also sharing the picture of the Meuse-Argonne cemetery as it appeared in 1930. For an instant I imagined being there on the edge of time with Cora Blake and others feeling the emotions upon arrival that must have stirred inside their souls. This is truly a beautiful review of a book that sounds deeply moving and meaningful. Thank you for sharing, Lucy!

    • fictional100 May 14, 2014 at 2:25 pm #

      thank you, naomi! You always bring so much empathy to your reading. I do think you would like this book because the author cares so much for her characters’ experience too. xo

  4. faith hope & cherrytea July 27, 2014 at 11:49 pm #

    Fantastic review, Lucy! I have been privileged to learn much as a result… TY!

    • fictional100 July 28, 2014 at 9:38 am #

      Thank you so much for visiting! And for your kind comment. It is a very special book, and I learned much from it too!

  5. Jo Simon September 22, 2016 at 12:05 am #

    Just finished reading the book and anticipating the discussion at the book club tomorrow night in Derby, KS

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. April Smith on tour: A Star For Mrs. Blake | France Book Tours - May 12, 2014

    […] May 10 Review + at The Fictional 100 Spotlight at Queen of All She […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Faith Hope & Cherrytea

inspiring and inspiriting ...

Myrtle Skete

Orthodox Gleanings

catholicismpure.wordpress.com/

Catholicism without compromise

Joan's Rome

by EWTN's Rome Bureau Chief Joan Lewis

Burning Hearts

A personal journey into sacred scripture

Living Our Days

Gaining a heart of wisdom

Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

So many books, so little time

heavenali

Book reviews by someone who loves books ...

Third Order Carmelites TOC

Ordo Fratrum Beatissimæ Virginis Mariæ de Monte Carmelo

The Holy Ones

They are happy who live by the law of God.

The Victorian Librarian

This is the life you lead when you can't decide between librarianship and research

Paper Fury

read. write. world domination

Love Travelling

Travel diaries providing inspiration for fellow travellers

Dotty Anderson

CHILDREN'S STORIES TO ENTERTAIN AND EDUCATE

Literary ramblings etc

"Book collecting...is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it" (Jeanette Winterson).

Some of my best friends are fictional...

Life in Slow Motion

Where Life, Faith, and Chronic Pain Collide

Shelf Love

live mines and duds: the reading life

The Fictional 100

Some of my best friends are fictional...

The Evolving Critic

Art and Culture

%d bloggers like this: