In 2010 Janet Skeslien Charles began working as the Programs Director at the American Library in Paris where she learned the history of this wonderful Library founded in 1920. The years of Nazi occupation of Paris and their effect on the Library especially drew her interest. A lot of research into those years supplemented with her own imagination resulted in this extraordinary and heart-warming book.
The French remain among the world’s most literate and avid readers. We learned how much they treasure their libraries, and the American Library was no exception. They also did not respond well to the kind of authority a foreign power tried to exert over them and their reading materials and habits.
Charles’s story covers the years 1939-1944: from the beginning of WWII when the French and Germans became enemies until the occupation of Paris ended in August 1944. However, because the Americans were not at war with Germany until December 1941, the American Library was not enemy turf to the Nazis for nearly the first 1½ years of the Paris occupation. It was mainly business as usual inside the Library, but not so outside of it.
Charles introduces us to the core group of librarians (those who worked there in various capacities) and the motley group of subscribers (Library patrons) who interacted daily. We meet Odile Souchet, a young woman who had loved libraries since her earliest years. It was her dream to work in this one, and she learned English to do so.
My June 2019 blog featured When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win WWII. It’s the story of getting books into the hands of U.S. soldiers during the war; of how important it was to our men mentally and emotionally to boost morale, and alleviate boredom and homesickness.
A similar program called the Soldiers’ Service was created by the Library Director, Miss Reeder, just after France entered the war in 1939. “People read…war or no war,” she said. [p. 117] The Library collected books donated by patrons and supporters to ship to the Front. The first months after war was declared left little for French soldiers to do besides read and wait for action to start. Books were also given to hospitals for the wounded to read and to have volunteers read to them.
Once America entered the war in December 1941, the American Library was no longer off limits to Nazi influence. It was, however, somewhat mitigated by the help of Dr. Fuchs, a Nazi in charge of intellectual activity in France and other countries. He had a special liking for the Director, and kept the worst Nazi excesses out of the Library.
Life in the Library tried to go on as it always had. Subscribers visited, did their work, and librarians took on more work as needed to keep the Library afloat.
Gradually, though, some people drifted away. Some returned to England, America, or wherever they were not the enemy. Food scarcity, harassment on the street, and always-watching eyes wore some people down.
Others could no longer come to the Library for other reasons: that yellow star, e.g.. The librarians took upon themselves the danger of carrying books to those who could no longer enter the Library, but wished to have reading material.
One of the regular subscribers, Prof. Cohen, researched and wrote constantly. Odile chose to take books to her and others regularly, but it’s clear that she did not truly understand the situation. When she was stopped at a street checkpoint on her way to delivering books, she insisted that the books she carried were for herself—it worked.
These were the conditions in which Odile worked and fell in love. Her father worked for the French police, as did Paul, her lover. Her personal story is embedded in the reality of the Nazi occupation of Paris. The ending of the occupation coincides with terrible personal shocks that change her life completely.
We next meet Odile in 1983 in the small town of Froid, Montana. She was known there as the widow Mrs. Gustafson, “the War Bride.” She had never quite fit in with the town women. Lily, her almost-thirteen next door neighbor, was fascinated by this aloof woman.
“Everything about Odile was elegant, even the way she ate her sandwich. In Froid, she stuck out like a sore thumb, but maybe in Paris, she was just an ordinary finger.” [p. 96[
Lily had been a good student until her mother’s death and family upheaval threw her far off course. In the process, she turned to neighbor Odile for someone to talk to and to teach her French.
The two “outliers” helped each other in the ways they needed, and Odile became more accepted by the townspeople. Lily committed a breach of Odile’s privacy that nearly ended the relationship, but which taught her that relationships have boundaries.
Charles has formatted the book to alternate between Odile’s and Lily’s stories, but Odile’s is by far the most compelling, has a deeper ring of truth. While so much of her story is history, it’s told in such a way that makes history feel like another story—which of course it is.
Another good point about the book is that it’s written by a person who clearly has read much and loves literature and writing. Many book titles are mentioned therein, giving readers a path to follow to connect to the characters and times in the book.
Other readers may find other ways to connect to the characters or times. For example, three of my paternal uncles married POST-war brides and brought them home from places where they were stationed in the service: England, Germany, and Newfoundland. I grew up in full view of how they were treated within the family, especially by my Irish Protestant grandmother. Eventually relationships improved, but I wish I could hear the stories my aunts could have told about their early married years.
I’ve disclosed as few “spoilers” as I felt it was possible to leave for readers to discover. I can see why this book has become so popular, and in fact, I’ll want to read it again. The love and compassion the author feels toward her characters and subject shine through to the reader, leaving us with a peaceful feeling. Charles says:
“My goal in writing this book was to share a little-known chapter of World War II history and to capture the voices of the courageous librarians who defied the Nazis in order to help subscribers and to share a love of literature. I wanted to explore the relationships that make us who we are, as well as how we help and hinder one another. Language is a gate that we can open and close on people. The words we use shape perception, as do the books we read, the stories we tell one another, and the stories we tell ourselves….[P]eople like to ask themselves what they would have done. I think a better question to ask is what can we do now to ensure that libraries and learning are accessible to all and that we treat people with dignity and compassion.” [p. 351]
This book is available at Grover Beach Community Library.