A Star for Mrs. Blake
January 2014 Indie Next List
— karen schwettman, FoxTale Book Shoppe, Woodstock, GA
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Cora Blake never dreamed she’d go to Paris. She’s hardly ever left the small fishing village where she grew up. Yet in the summer of 1931, she is invited to travel to France with hundreds of other Gold Star Mothers, courtesy of the U.S. government, to say goodbye to their fallen sons, American casualties of World War I who were buried overseas.
Chaperoned by a dashing West Point officer, Cora’s group includes the wife of an immigrant chicken farmer; a housemaid; a socialite; a former tennis star in precarious mental health; and dozens of other women from all over the country. Along the way, the women will forge lifelong friendships as they face a death, a scandal, and a secret revealed.
Praise For A Star for Mrs. Blake…
“[Smith] brings graceful life to a wrongly forgotten historical footnote.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Detailed and colorful . . . A story of America—rich in the lives of each of the characters.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Vivid and utterly unforgettable..” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“Compelling. . . . A first-rate novel that is well worth reading.” —The Huffington Post
“Moving and surprising. . . . Smith, a lucid writer with a detective’s eye for detail, doesn’t let us forget the painful event that launched her heroine’s journey.” —BookPage
“A sensitively drawn portrait of an obscure but consequential event. It is also a story that highlights the power of female community, how that bond can help mitigate even a grief that has no end.” —WBUR.org
“April Smith has written a beautiful and unforgettable novel about five Gold Star Mothers whose stories are both personal and universal. Writing A Star for Mrs. Blake must have been a labor of love and it shows on every page. Everyone who has served or is serving in the military, and also their families and friends, should read this book.” —Nelson DeMille
“Smith writes with great depth of detail and of emotion, giving voice to . . . [these] Gold Star Mothers who traveled from America to their sons’ graves in France.” —Historical Novel Society
“Riveting. . . Smith has told this story with memorable characters and truly beautiful writing.” —Hudson Valley News
“Smith captures the mothers’ interactions in beautiful detail.” —Publishers Weekly
“Captivating and enlightening. . . . A heartfelt glimpse into a little-known episode in U.S. history.” —Booklist (starred review)
Vintage, 9780307948809, 352pp.
Publication Date: September 23, 2014
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
The Gold Star Mother’s group was founded after World War I. Why was President Herbert Hoover so eager to pass legislation to fund these pilgrimages? Was there more to it than wanting to honor the fallen soldiers and their mothers.
Consider the Gold Star Mothers in Party A featured in April Smith’s book. How would you characterize their relationship with one another? How are the women different? How are they similar? What tensions are evident between them and what is at the root of these problems?
The parents of each soldier had the choice of whether to inter their son’s remains in America or in France. What was behind Cora Blake’s ultimate decision to have her son interred in France? Do you think she was at peace with that decision?
What cultural issues does the mix-up of Wilhelmina Russell and Selma Russell expose? There is documentation that some “Negro mothers” would not go on the trip when they found out they wouldn’t be treated as equals to the “white mothers.” Do you agree with these mothers’ decisions not to go?
What does Smith mean when she writes of war and “the democracy of death” (page 22)? What examples are found in the book?
How are the mothers treated in America? How are they received in France? What does this seem to indicate about international opinions of America’s role in the war?
While much of the focus of the story is on the physical and emotional journey of each of the Gold Star Mothers, what kind of journeys do Lieutenant Thomas Hammond and Nurse Lily undertake? How do they change from the start of the pilgrimage to its conclusion? What causes these changes?
The book features several expatriate characters. Does Smith indicate why these Americans are living in France? What kinds of occupations do they have? What do they share in common? What do these characters suggest about postwar living in Europe? Who are some real-life expatriates and how do they compare with Smith’s expatriates?
The tension between Clancy Hayes and Griffin Reed helps to illuminate issues of ethics, propaganda, and the role of the press in determining how war is presented. How does each journalist approach the task of writing about war and its effects? Why does Reed have such a problem with Hayes? How is Reed’s version of the story of the Gold Star Mothers different than Hayes’s version? What is the overall effect of the article Reed writes? How is it received? Why is this important?
There are different ideas about war expressed by the book’s characters: the mothers, the journalists, Nurse Lily, and Lieutenant Hammond. What are those ideas and how do they compare? How does General Perkins’s point of view affect our understanding of the issues at hand? Who do you sympathize with the most?
American expatriate journalist Griffin Reed wears a mask because of his severe disfigurement, but this mask may also be interpreted as a symbol of secrets, the inner self, and the emotional masks we all wear. What secrets do each of the characters keep? Is one more surprising than another? Why is Cora’s telling of her story to Reed so important? Does he keep her secret? How do the characters react to the revelation or discovery of each other’s secrets?
What part does legacy play in the book? Cora says that her family’s military involvement dates back to the time of the Revolutionary War. Perkins is from an army family, as is Lieutenant Hammond. How do tradition and the will to break from tradition feature as themes of the book? Consider Minnie Seibert’s reaction to the young woman on the bus. Why is Minnie so disgruntled by the young woman’s initial response to her?
Each of the female characters is confronted with her own personal choices. What do their situations tell us collectively about the role of women during this time? Do the women change throughout the story, or do they continue to adhere to societal norms and roles?
Evaluate the motif of pilgrimage in the book. How is a pilgrimage different from a trip? How does this categorization tie the book in with a greater thread in American history? What does this tell us about common experience? What common plights and challenges do all pilgrims face and how do they surmount these?
Discuss the treatment of faith in the book. What examples of faith are found throughout? Besides religious faith, what other kinds of faith are depicted? Which characters experience a loss of their faith or a conflict of faith? Do they ever regain their faith? If so, how? At the conclusion of the book, what do the characters seem to find faith in?
Many of the characters exhibit a strong sense of duty at one time or another. Does this change throughout the story? Is duty to something always external? Or are there any examples in the story of duty to one’s self?
Griffin Reed says that Cora worries over “what a war mother is really supposed to do” (274). Is this question answered by the end of the book? How does Smith’s story change or confirm your own ideas about duty and sacrifice?
A Star for Mrs. Blake is anchored in a footnote of history. The book is inspired by a diary of a real-life American colonel and Gold Star Mother liaison officer, but the story is from the author’s imagination. Discuss the role of truth and accuracy in historical fiction. What other books can this one be likened to? What do these books indicate about war and its effects and the way that we view them? What can a reader take away from reading about events in a novel rather than in a history book?
Nelson DeMille, author of Word of Honor, said, “Everyone who has served or is serving in the military, and also their families and friends, should read this book.” Why do you think he suggests this and do you agree?