A Star for Mrs. Blake: A novel
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When she realized that the letter was from the War Department, she had an unnerving sensation, as if the ground were tilting under her feet. It was the same as when the envelope had contained a handwritten note from the Adjunct General's Office saying that Samuel Blake, her only child, had been killed in action in Montfaucon, France. There'd been no snow yet, as it was October , near the end of the war. Eli had come all the way out to Tide's End Farm to deliver the news, along with the minister and Doc Newcomb. Cora made them wait while she took her time reading the letter.
Finally she looked up and smiled broadly, maybe the first time she'd ever looked happy in that place. Meanwhile, you got plenty of work today," he said, and he walked toward the factory. Eli Grimble leaned close. The boss dug his boots in the slush and turned with exaggerated patience.
All right. A group of curious packers had gathered in the doorway. Cora said it loud enough so all of them could hear. Especially Essie Jordan. There was never any question in Cora's mind that she'd be on that boat.
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The War Department had pledged to send any mothers or widows of loved ones killed during the war and buried overseas to visit their graves in the American cemeteries in Europe. How could she not stand up and be counted? She had a duty to Sammy, as well as to the country.
She knew it, clear as day. The decision had come easier than the choice she'd been forced to make when her grief was fresh — whether to have Sammy's body shipped home or permanently interred in France. Everyone in town had an opinion. Some said yes, to show America's commitment to her allies. Some thought hell, no, bring the boys back where they belonged and never should have left in the first place. In the end, the War Department left the choice to the families.
Cora yearned to ask her father's advice, but he'd died the spring just before Sammy had enlisted, and so she heeded the words of Theodore Roosevelt. He and his wife had decided that their son Quentin should be buried over there and strongly urged other parents to do the same. Roosevelt and I have always believed that where the tree falls, there let it lay," he wrote. It was a poetic image that appealed to Cora's good sense — things die and go back to nature.
But was it too much to ask for yet another sacrifice — after losing Sammy in the first place, not to have his marker in the town cemetery next to her parents and sister in the Blake family plot? Not to be able to stop by for a visit any time she pleased? A decision was called for, and she'd have to make it on her own. It was a fair day in March , four months after Armistice. There was chop in the harbor out to the bay. Cora had been walking north on Eaton Road over to Elizabeth Pascoe's to buy her scrumptious maple sausage. She'd received two cards from the Graves Registration Service.
The first gave the location of Sammy's temporary burial — a place called Chaudron Farm, map reference He was in grave number 72, identified by his dog tags apparently nailed to a stake. The second card asked that she state her relationship to the deceased and answer the question Do you desire the remains be brought to the United States? In the spent garden of the last house before a stretch of woods, she came upon the turpentiney odor of geraniums, which, even when they're bright with flowers, can bring on a melancholy mood.
Instead of going straight to Elizabeth's, she took a right at the Cross Road, which led to the town cemetery. Pascoe, Elizabeth's mother, had been walking in the road as well, but the poor thing didn't know where she was. Cora stopped and buttoned her cardigan for her, speaking calmly about ordinary things. Battered blue veins showed through the thin skin at the old woman's temples as if the endurance it took to stay alive had become visible.
Pascoe said she was going to the hospital. She meant she was going to die, as she was walking toward the cemetery also. Cora waved at Elizabeth, who was running after her mother. A hundred-foot sycamore marked the entrance in the rock wall around the graveyard. Nothing moved in this timeless place but shadows. Cora strolled between the stones, familiar as the houses on her street, calmed by a porous quiet that let in just birdsong. Lost at sea, November 3, Drowned in Havana, June 15, Many of the inscriptions were too worn to be read.
As if a veil were being lifted, Cora began to accept the possibility that Sammy might not be buried here. It was not his place. He'd been a young man just making his way. Behind that veil was a parade of patriotic ideals, a drumbeat of Americanism that solidified the image in her mind: He deserves to be in the field of honor in France. He made the world safe for democracy, and he should be part of that future — the future of a peaceful world. He was an American hero, loyal to his friends, never hesitating to fight for what was right. Good Lord, he'd always been like that, even when he was 9 years old.
It must have been around eight o'clock on a bitter cold night. Cora had been at her sewing table and had looked up to see two pairs of headlights.
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There were only two cars on the island; one belonged to the doctor and the other to the sheriff. Both were on their way to her door.
Sammy had been warned about salt water ice. The danger was drilled into every local child. If you fell through the ice on the Lily Pond, you had a reasonable chance of staying put, but when the harbor froze, even if it was two feet thick, there would still be strong ocean currents raging underneath. You'd get dragged under and swept all the way to China.
An Irish family with five rough boys had moved next door to the yellow stonecutter's cottage. They were from Boston and therefore smarter than Sammy and his friends, and had more tricks, too. That day it had been 15 below. The harbor had congealed into a solid glacier all the way out to Isle au Haut. The temptation to walk across from end to end was like a free bowl of jelly beans. The boys from Boston challenged the locals to a race. No sleds, no skates. Boots only. Nine went out, seven returned — slipping and falling, snot running down their bright red faces, screaming for help. One of the outsiders, a year-old named Patrick, had stumbled into a hole halfway across and was stuck with his butt in freezing water and his feet up on the ice, arms flailing, unable to move.
The other was lying on his belly, on liquefying frost a couple of feet away, trying to reach him with a flung-out scarf. That was Sammy. Sheriff Lundt and Doc Newcomb trooped him inside like a prisoner, wrapped in a blanket, tiny ice particles in his hair and shaking with cold. Cora slid across the floor to get him safely inside her arms, and Sammy held on. His poor ear was like a block of ice against her cheek, and his lips were thin and blue. She soothed him, "Don't worry, as long as you're safe—" and ran for another blanket and propped him up at the kitchen table while she got the kettle on and hot water bottles going.
She poured the men big shots of whiskey. Both were riled in the way that came from a near-disaster. They said Sammy deserved a whipping, like the other kids, for even stepping foot on salt water ice. A double whipping, because when they'd shouted at him to get the hell out of there, he'd refused to budge, stubbornly attempting to reach the boy with the hopelessly wet scarf. They'd had to make a human chain and rescue two boys, as by that time Sammy could barely stand up on his own. Why he'd risk his life for "people from away" coming into their waters and stealing traps, they couldn't comprehend.
Sammy couldn't stop shivering, but his eyes were defiant and his fists clenched. What about the heartache you caused her? Cora straightened her back. Sammy didn't look at her, but her hand was on his shoulder, and she could tell he was glad she'd said it. The doctor advised warm liquids and bed rest.
April Smith, author of A Star for Mrs. Blake, on tour January/February 2014
They got up to leave, and at the door he said, "It's not your fault, Cora. A boy needs a man around to discipline him. Sammy didn't understand all that, but he did feel the rebuke aimed at his mama. The shadows moved. Cora's knuckles ached from the dampness of the creek bed, and she realized it was late afternoon.
Leaving the cemetery, she resolved to have her son buried overseas, but not without a sharp stab of doubt that she had betrayed something else deep within. She'd have nothing in her hands of him. This was truly the "final sacrifice," as the papers called it. She'd given up the baby that had come from her body — and yet she felt she had surrendered something in favor of what was more important.
Important to whom? To the country , she told herself emphatically.
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Not the sort of person who liked to waste time, she went directly to the post office and sent a telegram to the War Department giving her permission to permanently inter Sammy in the American military cemetery. When it was over, she stepped outside the post office and took long, calming breaths of salt air. She took in the untouched rhythm of the village, safe from harm because of young men like Sammy. She felt almost giddy with relief, righteous and blessed. Blessed by Teddy Roosevelt. In a cabinet of folders in the Adjunct General's Office was a carbon copy of Cora's application to join the American Gold Star Mothers, a national organization chartered by Congress at the end of the war.
It was open to mothers of sons or daughters who had served in the Allied Forces and died as the result of that service. Cora had typed her answers to their questions on the library Remington: Natural father of veteran "Curtis Blake, deceased" ; Cause of death of veteran "Killed in action" ; Remarks "Cited for gallantry". The letter she'd been thrilled to receive in the dead of winter at Healy's cannery contained the confirmation date of her trip — June 22, At that point, it was no longer grief that pushed her; it was pride, and she was surprised by the force of it.
She had supposed she had reconciled those feelings long ago, but they must have been slowly uncurling in her mind like coils of dry kindling in the stove, because with one hot breath, they burst into a ball of fire.
The moment she read that letter — she was really going! The women were from all walks of life, but what they had in common was this: They'd each gone to the front window and taken down that blue-star banner symbolizing hope and pride, one star for every family member in service. Most likely they'd made it themselves, of cotton or felt or crochet. Then one day they accepted the lonely task of replacing the blue star with one of gold.
Gold meant sacrifice to the cause of liberty and freedom. They hadn't asked for this, but they'd shouldered this responsibility without protest, as stoically as their children had rested a rifle against their chests. They had each been alone, but no longer. Cora had straight away written to the president of the New England chapter of the American Gold Star Mothers offering to help.
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The answer she received was a surprise. For Cora Blake, her personal call came in February when she got a letter of invitation from the War Department. Here is a sample set of documents sent to a Gold Star Mother in , including invitation, letters, and a handbook of general information for her trip. 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. One by one, the pilgrims arrived, were introduced, and joined the preparations for the European voyage. In venerable medieval fashion, the pilgrims all received special bronze badges to wear during the whole trip. These badges identified them as Gold Star Mothers wherever they went.
Smith describes what one woman, a Russian immigrant named Minnie Seibert, felt as she looked around the room where many parties of mothers were seated for a welcome luncheon:. Here, you did. Because, like the rabbi from Bangor had said, the consolation for a mourner is that she shares with others not only this loss but all the misfortunes that come of living a full human life. Here, among those others, Minnie knew she belonged. The mothers were the focus of much attention, most of it welcome and gracious, but some of it problematic and intrusive.
Pilgrims in the Labyrinthine part of their journey are often assisted by guides: in this case, Lt. Thomas Hammond and nurse Lt. 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. It felt like being there with the mothers and then watching the unexpected unfold. Here is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery as it appeared in 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. Purchase the book. She is also an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of dramatic series and movies for television. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband. Visit her website. Get in touch with her on Facebook and Twitter. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions. I loved that Smith focused on a part of history that not many people are aware of.
I agree! Thanks for visiting! Thanks so much for your very kind comments! It was such a pleasure to write about this moving book and be part of the tour. Your review is such a soulful journey in and of itself, a voyage into the human hearts of women who are mothers who travel to such a place of impact. Thank you for also sharing the picture of the Meuse-Argonne cemetery as it appeared in For an instant I imagined being there on the edge of time with Cora Blake and others feeling the emotions upon arrival that must have stirred inside their souls.
This is truly a beautiful review of a book that sounds deeply moving and meaningful. Thank you for sharing, Lucy! You always bring so much empathy to your reading. Thank you so much for visiting! And for your kind comment. It is a very special book, and I learned much from it too! Just finished reading the book and anticipating the discussion at the book club tomorrow night in Derby, KS. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Google account. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account. Notify me of new comments via email.
Notify me of new posts via email. Also available in paperback. If you'd like to add her book, The Fictional , To-Read on your shelf, click the button below:. Visit my other blog, devoted to a wide range of books on Iceland and the Scandinavian countries. Thanks to all who read and commented there, and please visit again here at my new home on WordPress. The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Psalms This is the life you lead when you can't decide between librarianship and research.
Those who do it must do it" Jeanette Winterson. Some of my best friends are fictional…. The Fictional Home About RSS. Blake by April Smith. Knopf, Congress passed legislation that would provide funding for the mothers of fallen WWI soldiers to visit the graves of their sons in France. Over the course of three years, 6, Gold Star Mothers made this trip. Smith imagines the story of five of these women, strangers who could not be more different from each other.