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A Star for Mrs. Blake

February 13, 2014

I thought April Smith’s new novel A Star for Mrs. Blake sounded interesting, and so I asked Knopf for an advance copy, which they provided. A few other bloggers have been reading it and writing about it, but none of them so far are the mothers of 17-year-old sons. That gave me a particular interest in the characters, “gold star” mothers whose American sons fought and died in France during World War I.

The main character is Cora Blake, a single mother whose son, Sammy, volunteered and died at the age of sixteen. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine, a place where “when conversation comes to its natural end you simply leave….No goodbyes or apologies are necessary; no future plans need to be made. It was understood the parties would naturally run into each other soon enough. It was an island, after all.” The smallness of her island makes her loss more poignant, especially since she can’t tell anyone the truth about Sammy’s father until after she has met the other gold star mothers.

The decision to bury her son in France rather than have the body shipped home to Maine is a difficult one, and the special pocket she sews into the dress she intends to wear to see Sammy’s grave contains “a handful of tiny shells” from the cove where she and her son used to go clamming. As she thinks about it, she wonders “How old was he when they stopped going to the cove together? When he’d go instead with his friends….” as I think all mothers start to wonder, at some point.

When Mrs. Blake meets the other gold star mothers, it becomes obvious that they are as thrown together from different walks of life as their sons must have been. One mother is led off to the separate accommodations for the “colored.” Another one has a younger son seeing her off at the train station, and he has a “withered leg” from polio which she says they regard as a blessing, since “he’ll never go to war.” The saddest one is a former tennis player and mental patient, routinely hospitalized because her father thought she “played like a man and should rely more on strategy and finesse” and because she called her husband’s other women “hussies.”

Meeting the other mothers and then a few of the people in France who have also been hurt by the war–one a man whose face was damaged—makes it easier for Mrs. Blake to tell the secret of how she raised her son and to find a new way to live without him. Seeing the battlefield and the cemetery gives all the mothers courage to face the worst they can imagine and then leave it behind. One dies trying, saying “where’s the rest of that Champagne?”

That mother’s death is blamed on someone who doesn’t deserve it, and the story ends with one character, the man with the damaged face, resolving to tell his own mother the truth about what happened to him in the war.

Mrs. Blake finds out one of her son’s secrets, a secret that she might have kept before she went to France. Now, however, she plans to reveal it as soon as she gets home to Maine, feeling defiant pride in her son’s choices—and by extension, her own.

It is heartening to a mother to see that her son lives up to the idealized picture she has of him even when she’s not there to see it, and humbling to realize that sometimes our children internalize lessons we didn’t mean to teach.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2014 10:49 am

    Sounds like a gorgeous book…and one I’m not prepared to delve into during February. A novel for June, perhaps.

    • February 17, 2014 7:38 am

      It wasn’t all that sad, considering the material. It’s quite character driven.

  2. February 13, 2014 11:00 am

    I’m glad that you really enjoyed this novel. I cannot imagine how these mothers felt, though loss is still devastating no matter the cause. In this day and age where women are increasingly joining the military and some fighting to be on the front lines, I see this story as even more universal.

    • February 17, 2014 7:40 am

      Yes, potentially. There’s something about the reckless bravado of the young. In older literature it’s always the 15-year-old boy–big enough to be grown, young enough to feel immortal.

  3. February 13, 2014 12:23 pm

    I have been seeing this around, too, and hope to read it one of these days. 🙂

    • February 17, 2014 7:43 am

      You’ll like it, I think; it’s based on a lot of real historical details.

  4. February 14, 2014 4:05 pm

    Ooh — I’ve had my eye on this one. It sounds good.

  5. February 16, 2014 4:18 pm

    I loved your review. Funnily enough it’s the sort of book I feel too tender about at the moment to read. So I’m very glad I had your review instead.

    • February 17, 2014 7:41 am

      I’m glad too, then. We’re spelling each other through this first year of sons at college/university.

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