The Librarians of Rue de Picardie by Janet Skeslien Charles

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Less than 40 miles from the front line of fighting, during the first World War, a group of three hundred and fifty women from the US, Canada and Great Britain worked to rebuild northern France from 1917 to 1924. This novel, The Librarians of Rue de Picardie, by Janet Skeslien Charles is a reminder of and a testament to their courage and humanity at that time in history.

Through her story of an American librarian, Jessie Carson, who joined this group and helped change the lives of many through her story hours, mobile libraries and setting up permanent libraries for the common people, the reader learns about this brave group of young women (CARDs, from the French equivalent of American Committee for Devastated France) and the impact they had on the lives of women and children in war-ravaged France. Their impact covered a wide range of family needs e.g. currently, the group were ‘chickenizing’ – ordering enough hens so that people have eggs and settling disputes as villagers argue about pecking order. A mayoress and a countess nearly came to blows over a rooster (22).

Although most of the volunteers were from wealthy families, some like Jessie were on a paid contract. Yet, although Jessie considered herself a lowly librarian among socialites in France, they were a united group with a common purpose and forged friendships which would last a lifetime. Each had their own nickname, so the reader follows the story of Kit (Jessie Carson).

This story links two time zones, 1918 and 1987. In the later storyline of librarian Wendy Peterson, the reader learns how the information for the earlier story was discovered. Janet Skeslien Charles has been lauded for a previous book The Paris Library and is reputed to have taken a decade researching the life and work of Jessie Carson at the New York Public Library where the main characters in the two storylines worked.

When I read the description of the war zone where CARD operated, I could not help feeling that little has changed when we consider what is happening in Gaza and Ukraine in 2024. Innocent people are still experiencing a similar situation.

Both storylines are written in the first person and presented by the main character in that time period. The special friendships that develop, the insecurities of the two key protagonists and their growth into more confident people is interesting to read. For example, Kit finally stands up to her previous bossy co-worker. ‘I worked for you but am not you. Please respect the thought I have put into the collection’ (270). The author also highlights the various ways people respond to tragedy and loss adding a wider range of emotions to the read.

This was an interesting read and had a lot more to offer than a history book. The characters appeared to have more depth and emotion. It was easy to see why the local people would turn to the CARD workers in time of trouble rather than the local dignitaries.

I enjoyed some of the turn of phrase the author used to impart her information – ‘He and I spent my high school years on the opposite shores of argument, shouting at each other’ (35); though some of the expressions might be more familiar to American readers – what a stiffrump! (4); curfuggle (8); hurkle-durkled (10); gollywhoppers (20) hork down food (34).

At the end of the book, the author has provided a brief report of several of the women who were CARDs, how they had been recognised for their contributions and the humanitarian work they continued after the war period.

The reader is left admiring the work of all these women but especially Jessie Carson. Through her efforts, CARD funded five libraries and created fifty circulating libraries in northern France. Funding was provided to train French women in library science. She was also responsible for setting up the Belleville Library in an eastern working-class section of Paris, a contrast to the traditional elitist libraries run by men only.

Although the achievements of these women need to be remembered, the relationships within this story, the diverse personalities and the ability of the two main characters to outgrow negative experiences and achieve their own strong personalities was the most rewarding to read.

The Librarians of Rue De Picardie

(2024)

by Janet Skeslien Charles

Hachette Australia

ISBN:978-1-03-541789-6

$32.99; 334pp

 

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