In 1929, The U.S. Congress passed legislation that would provide funding for the mothers of fallen WWI soldiers to visit the graves of their sons in France. Over the course of three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made this trip. Smith imagines the story of five of these women, strangers who could not be more different from each other. One of them is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother from coastal Maine. Journeying to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the lives of these women are inextricably intertwined as shocking events – death, scandal, and secrets – are unearthed. And Cora’s own life takes an unexpected turn when she meets an American, “tin nose,” journalist, whose war wounds confine him to a metal mask. [provided by the author]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
April Smith is the author of the FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mystery series, starting with North of Montana. She is also an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of dramatic series and movies for television. She lives in Santa Monica with her husband.A Star for Mrs. Blake
Author: April Smith
Can you see the mortar shells left on the ground? Do you see the hard chalky white shards that looked out of place? Can you smell the stench of the dead bodies buried beneath the ground? Do you see the bullets and the shrapnel shells that were left behind? Can you hear the guns go off and see the men fall right where they are? As you walk through the hollowed ground where so many lost their lives we go back in time and visit Meuse-Argonne Cemetery and learn about the American soldiers that fought for our country and a special group of mothers that never got to say goodbye.
Final farewells are difficult. But, what happens when your young son goes off to war, excited, filled with high expectations and does not return? What happens when you and thousands of other mothers are given a choice as to whether to bury your child in France a foreign country where they fought or to have their remains sent back home? The United States Congress in the year 1929 passed legislation to fund travel for a group of mothers to travel to France to visit their son’s graves. WWI cost us more than just the 6693 lives they are focused upon within the pages of April Smith’s novel A Star for Mrs. Blake. It reminds us of how much we lost when fighting the Germans. How many mothers grieved for so long and never got to say goodbye until the government years later decided to fund a trip for each one of them.
Five women would learn the true meaning of trust, love, friendship, prejudice, hate and companionship. Strangers often cannot find a common ground but these five women would learn so much about each other, their lost sons and their lives within the pages of this very compelling and heart breaking novel. Mrs. Cora Blake worked in a cannery and was taking care of three nieces. This trip would finally bring her closure. Her son Sammy Blake was killed in the war and the heartbreaking events leading up to his death are described. Each of the mothers treated as VIP’s and given a Gold Star. Each one called a Gold Star Mother and whose son was killed during WWI. These women received passages to Europe and all of their expenses were paid.
Cora Blake is the first woman that we meet who comes from Maine. Her son Sammy decided to enlist in the army and lied about his age in order to be allowed to serve. He was killed near Verdun. Cora is part of a group of five and corresponded with a woman named Genevieve Olsen who was well connected and in charge of the group. She was given the title as one of the coordinators and had the privilege of going places with Mrs. Olsen.
Sending letters to each of the four women in her group readers will get to know Mrs. Wilhelmina Russell, Mrs. Selma Russell, Mrs. Katie McConnell and Mrs. Minnie Siebert. Each one has their own special story about their son or in one case two sons that lost their lives during the war.
Cora is smart and has been alone for a long time. Linwood Moody is a gentleman from her hometown in Maine who would like nothing better than to make her his wife. But, Cora has doubts and going on this trip just might change her perspective in many ways about him and her life in general. Called the member Coordinator for Party A, Cora was eager to get started and meet her commanding officer Mrs. Olsen. The women were called pilgrims as they were going to Europe for the first time. We hear the voice of Katie McConnell when she writes to Cora about the death of her two sons Tim and Dolan. Losing two sons was doubly hard for her as the two women meet and their friendship begins. Within pages 38-40 we learn Sammy’s story and about his childhood and life as Cora flashes back to when he decided to enlist and his childhood so readers get to know him better and understand how hard it was to lose a child at the age of 16. But, she has a hidden secret about her life, about the man she calls Curtis Blake and when revealed will it change how others view her?
Next we meet Mrs. Selma Russell a black woman who finds it hard to consider Cora her friend. Not used to being in the company of Negro people other than porters on a train or seasonal workers Cora tries to encourage her to go inside the train station but she refuses. The reasons are given as the ugly head of prejudice shines through. Cora next has to find Katie McConnell. Learning that there would be an RN named Lily Barnett and Lieutenant Thomas Hammond in their party too.
Elmore Russell was the son of Mrs. Selma Russell and she explains his death and the fact the he served in the same unit as Sammy to Cora. But a bond would not be formed and mix-up in names would change it all. Group A was comprised of Mrs. Blake, Katie, Minnie, Wilhelmina, Bobbie as Mrs. Olsen was called and Lily and Lieutenant Hammond the group’s guide. Rules were set, special times were made for all activities and many things would change. Having to adhere to the rules and making sure that things ran like clockwork often put a strain on the women who became ill from too much heat, traveling by boat and being confined. You might say these women seemed to have been enlisted in their own army and they needed to follow the regime set out for them. But, something would change when Mrs. Selma Russell was transferred to another group because she was Negro and Mrs. Wilhelmina Russell would replace her. But, facts about the new Mrs. Russell would worry the guide and the nurse as the author relates her mental status, shares her son’s final words to her and readers realize that her husband was the cause of much of her problems regarding her mental status and her feelings about herself. The emotional upheavals, the arguments that ensue, the feelings of jealousy, neglect and the lack of harmony among these women at times makes the story more realistic.
Cora meets two reporters that both want to do a story about her. One finds it difficult to stand by while the other is belligerent and rude to Cora. Griffin Reed is a journalist that cannot seem to catch a break and has not been picked up by newspaper. Meeting Cora would change it all as she confides in him her deepest secret about her life and the story is written and published in a well= known French newspaper. The article was so outstanding that readers hope he will write another about the other Gold Star mothers
The trip is quite exciting the expeditions to the cemetery heartbreaking and sharing the stories of each of their sons with readers helps you to understand the feelings of each mother when she sees the stone of her child and the words written for the first time. But, mistakes are made and one mother receives a packet to take home with the wrong picture and another like Cora wants to see where it all happened and where her sons were shot down.
A simple picnic would change it all, as they wanted the mothers to spend time together before going to visit their sons for the last time. But, warned that there might be old bombs, shells, mines and dangerous explosives left behind by the Germans they were warned to not go into certain areas.
A story so vividly told and characters that are true to life as so many women like these five entered Boston, went to New York, saw the sights and then took that voyage that would forever change their lives. Throughout the novel we feel the friction between the five women, their friendships tested and their bickering and fights related to jealousies, prejudice, dislike between Minnie who is Jewish and one who is Irish Catholic. One who is wealthy and another whose friendship with her bothers the rest.
Griffin Reed was disfigured who was seriously wounded in the trenches and has to wear a lead mask in order to be seen in public. But, lead poisoning is not uncommon and his unselfish act of kindness towards Cora will endear you to him even more. Secrets unfold, betrayals are revealed as a sudden death brings to light what happens when someone wants to hide behind his rank and shield, blames another for his lies and lives are drastically changed forever. Griffin who lost half of his face in the war and wears a metal dramatically tells Cora’s story mask unfortunately made of lead. Trusting him with her deepest secret was brave, as she had to rely on his discretion hoping that he would not tell it all when writing her story. Doubts begin to surface as both Lily finds herself attracted to Hammond yet hoping to stay faithful to David back home. But, events will change; her life will take a dramatic turn. How do you fight someone who lies and is in power? One widowed librarian, one Irish maid, one woman whose husband thinks she’s insane and had her committed, one Jewish Chicken farmer and a Boston socialite whose lessons in life and whose struggles are told in this outstanding historical novel based on a real life event that sent so many mothers on a pilgrimage to France to say their final goodbyes to their sons. Added in we cannot forget Mrs. Selma Russell whose story will bring tears to your eyes and whose final request will make you applaud. How do you know that your child is really buried where they said? How will the military appease her fears and her concerns? What will they do to prove that Bradley is resting in peace where his marker is? When you learn the truth, hear her words and find out just what happened to him, you will wonder just how many truths were bent and how many lies were spoken in order supposedly protect these mothers from more grief. From Deer Isle to Boston, New York, Paris and Verdun Cora leads these amazing women on a journey even you the reader will never forget.
This story was inspired as author April Smith states from reading a diary of a liaison officer, like Hammond, in the US army assigned to accompany these amazing Gold Star mothers to France.