Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Star for Mrs. Blake

A Star for Mrs. Blake, by April Smith, is a heart-breaking, poignant and hopeful novel of American women traveling overseas to visit the graves of sons killed in World War I and learning about themselves and each other in the process. Set during a Gold Star Mothers pilgrimage in 1931, six women of different social classes and races discover, despite common loss and a shared goal, much still separates them in President Hoover’s America and post-war France.

The title character, Mrs. Cora Blake, is a librarian in coastal Maine who takes the U. S. government-sponsored and paid trip to the grave of her son Samuel, who died in the final month of World War I. Smith uses an early episode of mistaken identity to call attention to the distinctly separate and not-equal treatment of African-American women whose sons and husbands equally made the supreme sacrifice for a country that wrestles with racial injustice to this day.

For most of the book, Mrs. Blake’s primary companions are a wealthy Boston socialite widow, a Jewish woman making the journey over the objections of her husband, a woman whose philandering husband has repeatedly institutionalized her, and an Irish working-class woman who lost two sons in battle. This small band grows as close together as a unit in combat, led by an idealistic recent West Point graduate and accompanied by a nurse contemplating her own future.

The horrific costs of the world’s first industrial-scale exercise in man-made carnage are demonstrated not only by the anguish of the mothers for their long-dead sons, but also through Mrs. Blake’s encounter with an expatriate American reporter grievously wounded during a gas attack years earlier. In enthralling prose and vibrant description, Smith ably builds sympathy for her characters while also offering a fitting memorial to all those who suffered during the World War and afterward.  
Smith’s book shines a sweet light on a little-known part of our nation’s history. It also subtly compels the reader to reflect more soberly on the meaning of country, honor, and sacrifice.  In this anniversary year of the start of the “War to End All Wars”, this book is sure to enlighten curious readers while challenging all of us to consider what support the troops means - before as well as after - the final shot is fired.   

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