Book review

'A Star for Mrs. Blake': A moving novel unveils a tomb full of tears

April Smith's latest centers on mourning and motherhood after the Great War

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"A Star for Mrs. Blake," the latest novel by April Smith, personalizes the loss of young soldiers on the French battlefields of World War I through the grief of their mothers several years after the war's armistice. Cora Blake, a single mother and librarian, lives peacefully on the Maine coast as the caregiver to her deceased sister's three daughters.

Her son, Pvt. Samuel Blake, was killed and buried in France. The American government, in the throes of the Great Depression, allotted $5 million to allow the mothers of the Great War's casualties who were buried overseas to travel on a pilgrimage to visit the grave sites of their sons. Believing in the cause of the Great War and in Samuel's ultimate sacrifice, Cora travels with four other "Gold Star Mothers" on an ocean liner to Paris, then to Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, where her son is buried.

By April Smith
Knopf ($24.95)

Accompanying them are Lily, a volunteer nurse, and Lt. Thomas Hammond, a young West Point grad and one of a family of career soldiers, who follow a strict itinerary honoring these women with a hero's welcome, tours, ceremonies and parting souvenirs.

Each of the five Gold Star Mothers come from different walks of American life -- Russian Jewish chicken farmer, Irish Catholic maid, Boston Society widow, small town librarian and philandering architect's depressed wife -- yet they are brought together to share hotel rooms, meals and conversation. The differences among them become apparent when topics such as pork sausage and cooking chickens come up over the breakfast table.

Lt. Hammond, trained to strategize war, finds that the demands of the five ladies far surpass any training he's received. Early on, Mrs. Wilhelmina Russell, the architect's emotionally fragile wife, is confused with Mrs. Selma Russell, a black seamstress from Georgia.

Lily's sure leadership helps him to navigate the world of grieving women even though she is hoping to determine her own future as a nurse or as a pediatrician's wife. Hospitals in the 1930s did not permit married women to continue nursing.

Despite their differences, the five women support each other in their shared grief and as Americans while Cora Blake quietly takes the leadership role. She also has a decision to make about her own future as the wife of a local soil scientist. While in Paris, she meets an expat journalist, Griffin Reed, who suffered horrible disfigurement disguised publicly with a metal mask. Reed's career has suffered since the end of the war, but he survives with the support of an American sculptor, Florence Dean Powell, who designed the mask that hides his war injuries.

Smith's story was inspired by the journals of Col. Thomas Hammond, who actually accompanied the Gold Star Mothers on their pilgrimage to France during the Hoover administration. Personal visits to the sites described in the book took Smith on a 25-year pilgrimage of her own to put this beautiful story together.

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. It is also a story of social justice and a story of the machine of American propaganda during wartime and during economic hardships. There is no way to ignore the personal sacrifices of the families who follow their hearts to military service -- whether as a soldier, a journalist or the stateside mother of those who serve -- without recognizing that there is a price to be paid to the rhetoric of patriotism.

"A Star for Mrs. Blake" 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. Small town New England life contrasts with a French war-torn village. Harlem is juxtaposed against Manhattan. The circumstances of Russian and Irish immigration during the turn of the century contrast with that of European evacuation during the 1930s.

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:

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