You’d think a story about a group of mothers traveling to France to visit the graves of their war-killed sons would be a maudlin tear-jerker. At least I thought so, but boy was I wrong. April Smith’s A Star For Mrs. Blake is like one of those asian paintings that creates as much of its effect from the spaces as from the drawing.
Cora Blake lives an isolated life in a small town on a small island in Maine. She mourns the loss of her Samuel, killed in World War I, maintains the town’s small library, raises her sister’s girls, sometimes works in the cannery. She has a suitor/lover, but she’s not in love. Not much of a life, really. Then comes an invitation from President Hoover’s Department of War. She and a group of other women whose sons’ bodies lie beneath French soil are to be shepherded across the Atlantic to visit the warriors’ remains.
Cora becomes the coordinator of a group which includes a rich matron, a poverty-stricken Irish immigrant, a Jewess whose family raises chickens because the isolation of the ranch helps them avoid the more aggressive anti-semites in the community, and (eventually) a woman whose husband has had her committed for hysteria several times to help facilitate his philandering. An army lieutenant and a general as well as a young nurse eventually join the mix.
The group undergoes a few rather cliche experiences–the awe of country folk in NYC, for example. However, most of the rest is original and fraught with tension. The lengths, for example, to which the army goes to keep the group segregated when a case of mistaken identity brings a black woman into the group. Everyone thinks they’ve made friends with her, but when she’s forced to leave, she tells them, “We are not friends. We never could be.” Nitty gritty stuff.
As the journey continues, the relationships develop, alliances form and dissolve. Always, the Meuse-Argonne battlefield is the goal. But the army is determined to provide a tour of Paris and environs along the way. Also along the way, Cora develops a relationship with a journalist that leads to perhaps the pivotal moment in the book.
The race issue raises its head again in a way that leads to a mistrust of the Army’s information and by implication all government institutions and authority. There’s a great deal more, every moment filled with tension and suspense. Smith narrates her way through a great variety of points of view with great skill. Every time a moment threatens to become saccharine, she stops, pulls back, and lets the reader’s imagination fill in what comes next.
By the time Mrs. Blake and her companions return home, each of them has had a life-change, and each of us as readers has gained both an insight and an unforgettable emotional experience. I almost didn’t download this one, but it would have been a grievous mistake. Thanks, April.