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.
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.
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/.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
*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.