A star for Mrs. Blake

When U.S. soldiers died during the First World War, their relatives were given the choice to have the remains shipped home or buried in an American cemetery in Europe. A lobbying movement on behalf of those who selected overseas interment resulted in Congress financing close to 7000 pilgrimages for mothers and wives to visit the graves.

Inspired by the diary of a young West Point graduate who escorted groups of mothers to France, local writer April Smith has created a well-researched and engaging fictional account of five women who left their homes during the height of the Depression to pay final respects to their sons at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery 152 miles east of Paris. Smith's characters bear their misfortune with a realism that is both startling and refreshing, making it possible to feel the utmost compassion for them.

At the center of this narrative is Cora Blake, a widow from Deer Isle, Maine, whose only child, Sammy, was killed in action thirteen years earlier. Her invitation from the War Department was delivered to the fish cannery where, on an icy February day in 1931, while cutting the heads and tails off sardines, she had to listen to the acerbic comments a woman across the assembly line directed at her. Cora could not have felt more elated as she announced to the boss and other packers, “I’m going to Paris. On an ocean liner. First-class.”

The four mothers with whom Cora traveled all came from New England states, but other than that, they formed a disparate group. One, an Irish immigrant who had lost two sons in battle, was grateful that her third had contracted polio as a baby so he would never be able to serve.  Another was a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Russia married to a chicken farmer, whose son had passed up a college scholarship in order to join the U. S. Army. Then there was a widow with whom Cora felt a kinship, except that she was the granddaughter of a railroad and fur tycoon, and one of the wealthiest philanthropists in America. Rounding out the group was a mother who was discharged from a mental hospital in order to make the trip. However, a Negro grandmother with a similar name was accidentally put in her place. Due to the segregationist practices of the era, the mixup had to be corrected, and in the process, the addled mother’s mental state went unnoted.

Proudly wearing sashes adorned with a gold star – the symbol representing a fallen soldier – the mothers were easily recognizable and served as American goodwill figures wherever they traveled. War journalists with little left to write about scrambled to cover them, so it was essential that nothing untoward occur. To that end they were escorted by a fledgling military officer who needed to establish himself, and a dedicated nurse engaged to a doctor at home who knew that if she did marry, she would have to give up the profession she loved. 

Suffice it to say, there were medical problems, interpersonal antagonisms, romantic urges, outpourings of grief, realizations of the horror of battle, new perspectives on life back home, and an unconscionable instance of making someone the scapegoat. This gentle novel set in a time of greater innocence runs deep.