Book review: A Star For Mrs. Blake – I love France #94


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A Star For Mrs. Blake

Star For Mrs Blake

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines,
I received this book for free in exchange
for a fair and honest review.
I was in no way compensated for this post
as a reviewer,
and the thoughts are my own.
A Star For Mrs. Blake
April Smith

Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: Jan 14, 2014

ISBN:  978-0307958846
Pages: 352 

Historical fiction

Source: Received
from the author for a
virtual book tour on France Book Tours


This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:

      books-on-france-142014 historical fiction New author challenge


new eiffel 5

In 1929, American mothers of soldiers fallen during WWI in France were offered a free trip to allow them to visit the graves of their sons. In A Star For Mrs. Blake, April Smith recounts this trip through the portrayal of 5 of these Gold Star Mothers. To do so, she based her inspiration on the Diary of Colonel Thomas Hammond, who did accompany such a group of pilgrims. Hammond is in the novel, under his real name, and just as in life, this adventure changed the course of his military career.

The book starts slowly, with the description of Cora Blake’s daily life in Maine, in a small city living mostly from the sea. This slow beginning helps to understand who Cora is, and how she dealt with her grief of losing her boy during WWI. It also highlights the difference between her milieu and the persons and sites she will discover during her trip to France.

I highly enjoyed this book, which touches on so many major themes around war and its effects, though not in an overwhelming way.

The writer listened, the notebook filled up, and Cora could feel something lift as she’d tossed that thorny secret over her shoulder, left it to the pond and the flower beds and the bittersweet afternoon light.

  1. There’s grief of course, and how each woman lives it differently, from serene but sad acceptance, to insanity. There are very powerful scenes when the mothers finally arrive in the cemetery in chapter 16.
    The author also portrays very well how grief colors and modifies relationship between people.
  2. There’s the theme of disability, with the character of a journalist, totally disfigured, and his life with a lead mask.
  3. There’s also the theme of destruction, with incredible descriptions of Verdun. The women, some coming from an affluent American high society, are shocked to discover what war did to this city, which has barely started reconstruction in 1929. I have to say, visiting such areas a couple of years ago, you can still see the impact on the environment, where the tranchées were.
  4. The mothers, coming really from protective naive milieus (compared to what the French just had to go through) are also shocked at discovering the reality of collaboration during the war.
  5. And there’s the ever present problem of unexploded grenades and bombs. Believe it or not, peasants in this region still discover some every year as they till the land, some dating from WWII, but lots also from WWI. I had myself to evacuate an area when I discovered one around 2000 on a property visited by many tourists on that beautiful afternoon in Champagne. Fortunately, it was easy to contact quickly the fire department by phone. They came right away, took care of the thing, they are so used to that, and no one was injured. The scene when a Gold Star Mother comes upon an unexploded bomb in the book is so true to life, so well rendered.

Lots of other themes fascinated me in this book. For instance diversity. I don’t know if this was in Hammond’s diary, but 2 mothers happened to have the same last name, and they got mixed up, sent to the wrong group, the wrong hotel, and received the wrong pictures of their son. The problem is, for the context of the time, one mother was white, the other black. The theme was so well treated, with the beautiful relationship developing between the black mother and the other ladies in her group who totally accepted her among them, just as any mother having sacrificed her son for the sake of peace, but how the system intervened and messed up everything.

In relation to this theme and others, the army definitely does not come out too well in this book. No surprise for me here. There’s an awesome passage on the futility of war in chapter 22.

And there’s also social diversity, and how women form totally different social backgrounds interact.

And national diversity and relationships, with quite revealing scenes between Americans, French, and Germans. In some French regions today, especially among older generations, you still can feel this is not neutral ground.

I also liked other things surrounding Cora’s life at home, her inner debate about possibly starting a new life, and a very special person she met at the end of her trip.

I think the author did an amazing job at dealing with highly emotional topics without ever falling into the teary or over gruesome style.


I had actually started listening to this audiobook when I was contacted by the author to review her book. So I ended up listening to some chapters, and reading others. I thoroughly enjoyed the narration by Bernadette Dunne. I think she had the perfect tone of voice, able to convey emotion with restraint. Her narrations also helped a lot to differentiate between the different social milieus encountered in the course of the novel.

VERDICT: Very powerful, yet not overwhelmingly emotional historical novel, reflecting on many facets of international conflicts. Highly recommended to anyone curious to know what happened on the field of WWI, and how it affected people, relationships, and countries.



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]





April Smith

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.

Visit her website.
Follow her on Goodreads
Get in touch with her on Facebook and Twitter




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6 thoughts on “Book review: A Star For Mrs. Blake – I love France #94

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