April Smith's novel, A Star for Mrs. Smith, is powerful and unforgettable. It's the perfect selection
for a book group, based on a little known fact of American history. She opens the book with a note from the National Archives. "In 1929, Congress enacted legislation that authorized the secretary of war to arrange for pilgrimages to the European cemeteries 'by mothers and widows of members of military and naval forces of the United States who died in the service at any time between April 5, 1917, and July 1, 1921, and whose remains are now interred in such cemeteries.'" According to this record, 6,693 women made the pilgrimage to Europe to visit their sons' graves. Smith takes readers on a pilgrimage with one group of women.
In 1931, Cora Blake is a librarian in a small island town off the coast of Maine, although the town hasn't had the money to pay her salary since the 1929 crash. She takes care of her brother-in-law and his three daughters. And, she's a Gold Star Mother. Thirteen years earlier, she lost her only son, Sammy. He lied about his age, and enlisted at sixteen. Although other sons of the island served, Cora was the only one whose son died in the war. The entire community pulled together to send Cora to New York City, where she would board a ship to travel to France and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery where the young men who died at Verdun are buried.
As a librarian, Cora is an organizer, and she writes the letters to the small group of women she'll travel with. She's the unifying figure in a group that consists of a woman from a wealthy railroad family, a Jewish chicken farmer, an Irish servant, and a woman with mental health issues. But, Cora is so much more. She's the voice of conscience, the figure that doesn't understand segregation, and doesn't accept mothers sending sons off to war. When she meets expatriate journalist Griffin Reed, her life will change in ways she never expected.
A Star for Mrs. Blake is so rich that I can't really summarize the entire book. While Cora is the main figure, the other mothers represent the universality of mothers who lose their sons in war. April Smith manages to wrap so much into this book, from the difficulties of life in the Depression, the rigorous life on a Maine island, to the trip to Europe. She examines the differences in how the mothers of white and black soldiers were treated. Griffin Reed's disfigurement, although common at the time, is now forgotten as one result of that Great War. And, through the eyes of Cora, as well as those of a young lieutenant assigned as liaison officer to the group of Gold Star Mothers, we begin to see war differently.
April Smith's A Star for Mrs. Blake is a beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking novel. It's a compelling story of war and the people left behind. It's the story of Gold Star Mothers, the strong women who suffer unfathomable loss. It's a novel you won't easily forget.
April Smith's website is www.aprilsmith.net
A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith. Alfred A. Knopf. 2014. ISBN 9780307958846 (hardcover), 329p.
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