April Smith,
A Star for Mrs. Blake
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

There are few people alive today who experienced the ravages of World War I. The United States came late to the war but suffered significant losses. And many young men and not a few women went to France to serve as soldiers, ambulance drivers, medics, nurses, etc., faced discrimination by race and religion that kept many of them from being given their due -- although in death, all are united in the agony of loss, mourning and sacrifices often ignored or forgotten.

In April Smith's latest book, A Star for Mrs. Blake, five women from disparate backgrounds and regions of the U.S. are united by the terrible loss of sons in Verdun, France. During World War I, those with family members serving would place a star in a front window to let others know they had a family member overseas. These stars were different colors and, sadly, a gold star meant a close family member had been killed in the war. In 1929, a bill was passed by the U.S. Congress to fund the travel of those Gold Star Mothers to the place where their sons were buried. These women were feted wherever they went and treated as heroines for their sacrifices.

This wonderfully written book focuses on the stories of five women united in their desire to visit their sons' graves in the Meusse-Argonne American Cemetery in Verdun. In a reflection of that time, those women who were white and Christian received better treatment by the organizers than those who were African-American or Jewish, although of the five in this particular party, the one Jewish mother received better treatment than the African-American woman.

This book is a rich, fascinating look at a time gone by, when there was no mass media except for newspapers, radio or word of mouth. Patriotism was great, and many people sent their loved ones off to war with pride in their sacrifice. Times were hard for most people, and many of the women who wanted to visit their sons' graves could not make the trip because their husbands refused them permission, they were unable to take time off from their work, or they had no one to care for their children while they were gone.

Somehow, these five women managed to make the trip. One of the beauties of this book is the great equalizer in the cause of these women; they all lost sons in a terrible battle in a war that truly was not in defense of the United States. Smith's use of language, character-development and her knowledge of those times makes this book a great read, and one that should inspire the reader to learn more about Gold Star Mothers. Smith has a link on her website to the true story of one woman that made the journey. This book should be on the shelf of any military museum bookstore, as well as in all libraries. It is simply wonderful.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Ann Flynt

17 May 2014

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