“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…. By October 31, 1933, when the project ended, 6, 693 women had made the pilgrimage.”
“A Star for Mrs. Blake” is a historical fiction novel, a story of five mothers who decided to make the trip to France to visit the graves of their sons who died in World War I. The author chose to highlight the stories of five women, all from vastly different backgrounds and faiths.
The book exposes many sides to war; the tragedy, the heroism, and sometimes, the futility of it. I was left wondering if this book gives a mixed message or if it is indeed geared toward the ‘doves’ who would vehemently protest American involvement in overseas wars.
I liked the main character, Cora Blake, the best, but I also really enjoyed the personality of her (rich) friend, Bobbie Olsen. Bobbie at first irritated me but then as I began to see she was just merely being who she was, I began to appreciate her individuality more. Cora is enthusiastic but she is also realistic. She has memories she wants to hang on to, and memories that she pushes down and tries to forget.
“The more everyone made a fuss, the more she wondered. They said the pilgrimages were ‘good for the morale of the country,’ but how would Mrs. Cora Blake’s going to France make anyone forget about bread lines and folks who’d lost their jobs living in tents? For herself, she didn’t need a row of crosses to know that Sammy was gone. She knew it every time she passed the girls’ room…”
There were discoveries in my reading that I had never before considered or realized. For one, the facial reconstruction for wounded soldiers was a tale that tears at your heart… and I admired those who invested their time and talents to give these young men hope of a somewhat normal post-war life.
The author also exposes the differences between how white and black American soldiers were treated, another story in our history that is not normally talked of.
“A typist downstairs made a mistake and I deeply apologize. I’m sure you can understand that in an operation of this size, it’s impossible to keep track of every detail.”
“What exactly are you tryin’ to tell me?”
“Somehow you – Mrs. Selma Russell – have been separated from your party and this other – Mrs. Wilhelmina Russell – is waiting uptown, in the YWCA in Harlem. You follow me?”
Selma nodded. “Very well.”
“Good. The nurse will help pack your things and then she and the lieutenant will escort you.”
“Harlem,” she mused. “Well, that’s the first good thing you said!… Always wanted to see Harlem…”
“Again, our apologies. It’s standard procedure for the colored mothers to go on separate tours and separate ships.”
“Call it by it proper name,” Selma said. “Segregation.”
Once or twice I almost quit reading this book. Some other reviewers protest the language in it, (I have certainly come across worse), but there were a couple of crude references I could have done without. However, I did want to find out what happens to the mothers once they reach the cemetery where their sons are buried. Being a mother of sons myself, I could identify with that part of the story, although with most of the characters, I didn’t really ‘engage’. I was also surprised that by the end of the book, the lasting bonds of friendship between the mothers that I expected to form, didn’t seem to happen and Cora is caught up once again, seemingly almost unchanged (although the reader knows better), by the details of everyday life.
I enjoyed reading about the battle of Verdun and would really like to learn more about warfare in World War I.
“They were such a great distance from home,” Cora said at last.
“But, you know, at the time, nothing seemed more natural. It was a noble thing to go over there and help our friends fight the Germans… And I naively believed that because Henry was a doctor, he would be safe. I believed a lot of things that weren’t right – like sending him away to boarding school. It was “what one did.” Henry was so bright, I was pompous enough to think there wasn’t a school in Boston that was good enough. But you know what? He would have become a doctor anyway. Looking back, what was the point of missing all those years with him?”
Cora thought of all the missing years with Sammy and hoped Bobbie didn’t see the tears coursing down her cheeks.”