A last visit from varied Gold Star mothers

Maggie Braun

By A Contributor

“A Star for Mrs. Blake” is a charming story of a group of women who would never have met unless their sons had not been killed in World War I. They were brought together because Congress passed a law in 1929 that allowed the mothers of soldiers who were killed to visit their son’s graves in France at the government’s expense. Over three years, more than 6,000 Gold Star Mothers went to France to see the burial sites of their sons.

This group of Gold Star Mothers, Party A, meets in New York, sails to France, goes first on to Paris and then to Verdun. From there, they visit the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. The women in Party A are varied. Cora Blake, the main character, is a single mother who became pregnant in college. She lied to everyone in her small fishing village in Maine and said Sammy’s father had died, but actually he had wanted nothing to do with raising a child.Sammy enlisted against her wishes near the end of the war. Just before Cora went to visit her son’s grave, a man she has known for a long time proposes to her but she leaves without giving him an answer.

Selma Russell joins the group for a short while. There was a mix-up in names and it is Wilhelmina Russell who was supposed to be in Group A. Selma Russell can’t stay with their group because she is black, and the black mothers are all in a different group and have different lodgings in New York. They stay in Harlem rather the Hotel Commodore, where Party A is staying.

Accompanying Wilhelmina Russell is a note from her husband that says she has just been released from the Maine Insane Asylum. She informs the group that all is not well at home because her husband is having an affair. Each group of mothers is accompanied by a nurse in case there are medical problems.

Minnie Seibert is another member of the group. She is Jewish and married to a chicken farmer who fled Russia to seek religious freedom in America. Her husband thought it was a waste of time for her to go, but Minnie persisted.

Katie McConnell is Irish and lost two sons in the war. She does have a younger son who, because of polio, walks with crutches. Her husband, a policeman, is proud that Katie is going, and thinks “she did the whole family honor by going on this pilgrimage.”

Last to join the group is a wealthy woman named Genevieve “Bobbie” Olsen, whose husband owns a railroad. She has booked her own room on the ship and arrives at the ship in a limousine. No one knows how she will adapt to the rest of the group, who are working class.

Actually, the women eventually all blend into a supportive group. One by one, the mothers tell about their sons, and through their grief, they find common ground. The tour is not without problems, especially when the party arrives at the battlefield where the boys lost their lives.

The author, April Smith, performs a valuable service in resurrecting a part of American history that has either been forgotten or ignored. She based the book on a diary shown to her by the son of the only real character in the story, Lt. Nicholas Hammond. He led a group of Gold Star Mothers from the United States to France’s battlefields and back.









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