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A Star for Mrs. Blake Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 14, 2014
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*Starred Review* Smith, author of five thrillers starring FBI Special Agent Ana Grey, here offers a heartfelt glimpse into a little-known episode in U.S. history, the journey taken by mothers of U.S. soldiers fallen in WWI to visit their sons’ graves in Europe. Smith focuses on five mothers whose sons were buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Their unofficial leader is Cora Blake, a single mother from Maine. She’s joined by an Irish maid, the wife of an immigrant Russian chicken farmer, a woman who’s been in and out of mental institutions since her son was killed, and a wealthy Boston socialite. Smith deftly spotlights moments along their sojourn, from the giggling fits brought on by the French delicacies they are served on board ship to the tears they shed when confronted by the stark white lines of marble stones where their sons’ remains now lie. Side plots revolve around an American journalist, badly disfigured in the war, who befriends Cora and publishes her story in a French newspaper, and the practice of racially segregating these mothers, even in their grief. Smith’s foray into historical fiction is captivating and enlightening. --Deborah Donovan
“A Star for Mrs. Blake is a beautifully written, meticulously researched slice of American history. April Smith’s poignant and tender story of five courageous World War I Gold Star mothers’ amazing journey across the sea is one you will never forget.” —Fannie Flagg
“April Smith has written a beautiful and unforgettable novel about five Gold Star Mothers whose stories are both personal and universal. Writing A Star for Mrs. Blake must have been a labor of love and it shows on every page. Everyone who has served or is serving in the military, and also their families and friends, should read this book.” —Nelson DeMille
“Smith's gentle, evocative prose brings graceful life to a wrongly forgotten historical footnote.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A first rate novel that is well worth reading. . . . Smith has the unique ability to take a long forgotten story and craft it into a page turner. . . . She’s found an important but forgotten postscript in America’s past and has written a compelling historical novel that confronts racism, class and economic differences as well as government bureaucracy. Smith conveys all of these topics through story and characters rather than a soapbox, and her subtle approach has far more impact than the histrionics of any television or radio pundit.” —Rob Taub, The Huffington Post
“A heartfelt glimpse into a little-known episode in U.S. history. . . Smith’s historical fiction is captivating and enlightening.” —Deborah Donovan, Booklist (starred review)
“Captivating. . . Smith captures the mothers’ interactions in beautiful detail and delves into the government’s not-entirely-altruistic reasons for sponsoring the trip.” —Publishers Weekly
“Smith writes with great depth of detail and of emotion, giving voice to these Gold Star Mothers who traveled from America to their sons’ graves in France.” —Historical Novel Society
“A moving novel [that] gives readers a detailed and colorful description of life during the interim between the War to End All Wars and the next world war that quickly followed. . . This is not simply a story of grieving mothers but a story of America—rich in the lives of each of the characters who raise small boys to become part of the dream but instead bury them in a faraway land. . . The questions are posed: How do we achieve peace? What are the costs of war? Can freedom and patriotism co-exist in America? And, for us in this century, how are our lives richer for the sacrifices of those who served before us?” —Lorinda Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Riveting. . . Smith has told this story with memorable characters and truly beautiful writing.” —Ann Lafarge, Hudson Valley News
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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. 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.
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.
Once they arrived in France, the stops 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 disturbing time. 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.
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 received an e-book in exchange for an honest review; I also bought myself a hardcover, frankly because of the beautiful cover. I'm glad now to have this copy on my shelf!
While the pilgrimage serves as the container for the characters, the real story is about them, how different the mothers are in race, religion and economic status, and having only one thing in common, the loss of their sons in a horrible war. Other characters come into play as well, from then current military to disabled and disfigured veterans. Much goes on near the ending which I cannot discuss here other than to say there is more trauma, but also some repair. There is a lot for readers to absorb.