A Star for Mrs. Blake, April Smith
An emotionally charged, brilliantly realized novel set in the 1930s about five American women-Gold Star Mothers-who travel to France to visit the graves of their World War I soldier sons: a pilgrimage that will change their lives in unforeseeable and indelible ways.
The women meet for the first time just before their journey begins: Katie, an Irish maid from Dorchester, Massachusetts; Minnie, wife of an immigrant Russian Jewish chicken farmer; Bobbie, a wealthy Boston socialite; Wilhelmina, a former tennis star in precarious mental health; and Cora Blake, a single mother and librarian from coastal Maine. In Paris, Cora meets a journalist whose drug habit helps him hide from his own wartime fate-facial wounds so grievous he’s forced to wear a metal mask. This man will change Cora’s life in wholly unexpected ways. And when the women finally travel to Verdun to visit the battlegrounds where their sons fought as well as the cemeteries where they are buried, shocking events-a death, a scandal, a secret revealed-will guarantee that Cora’s life and those of her traveling companions will become inextricably intertwined. Only now will they be able to emerge from their grief and return home to their loved ones. This is a timeless story set against a footnote of history: little known but unforgettable.
I thought this was a fantastic premise for a book. I was familiar with the concept of stars in the window for sons (and now daughters!) serving abroad and with the gold stars for those who lost a son during World Wars I and II, but I was not familiar with the government sponsored pilgrimages of these mothers to the graves of their sons. Its kind of amazing that our government did that-and really what an undertaking that must have been. (This short article is interesting for further reading.) I liked that the group we follow in the book, Party A, is made up of such very different women, the maid, the socialite, the Jewish farmer’s wife and the widowed Mrs. Blake. I believe that’s one of the good things about our military-all walks of life meet up together. Unfortunately, these soldiers died together, the mothers’ grief becomes a uniting factor across class, religion and race.
I think Smith got too carried away with her subjects and what could have been an interesting and touching story was too bogged down by extraneous details and side stories. If Smith had been able to narrow down her focus I think she could have also done more to keep her characters real and language true to the time period. It felt like every character you met had a back story, and they just didn’t matter. I would rather have gone deeper into a few issues, such as the separation of the white and African American mothers, than have read about the history of the Army General who planned the pilgrimages. The fact that there is a “death, a scandal, a secret revealed” on the journey should be enough to keep the reader engrossed without overloading on irrelevant information.
There were passages in this book that I found quite moving, especially as the mothers visited the cemetery where their sons were buried and later the battlefield where they died. But the best parts of the writing I had to search for in between the trivial details or language that seemed to anachronistic to me. I was invested in Mrs. Blake’s story as well as Bobbie’s and Wilhelmina’s, and I wish I had been able to be more interested in the other mothers. This was definitely worth a read for the historical perspective and a different kind of women’s story.
Goodreads is giving copies away right now if you’re interested. Scroll down on the Goodreads page to enter.
I received this book for free from Knopf in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.