When I was a young girl, weekly trips to our local library in Northeast Portland, Oregon, was a treat. An even greater delight was visiting the main library in downtown Portland with its grand stone façade, highly polished floors, and rooms full of books.
My father served as a commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II. I loved to see him in uniform when he would attend reserve trainings over the years. But serving in the Navy was not something I ever envisioned for myself. So when I learned of author Addison Armstrong’s second historical novel about a war librarian in World War I and a young woman entering the Naval Academy in the late 70s I was immediately intrigued.
Two women, two timeframes, and two sets of circumstances. And just to make it more of a page-turner, there is a secret that binds their lives together forged from different friendships over time.
Sound inviting? It is.
Americans have shown their patriotism in countless ways during wartime, including in the role of librarians. During World War I, librarians maintained camp and hospital libraries in Europe. While books were sorted on the home front, those that reached the troops overseas often boosted morale, alleviated homesickness, chased away boredom, and provided training for future job hunters. And those who delivered those books, often to wounded soldiers, brought hope along with the written word.
The U.S. Naval Academy opened in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1845. It would be more than 130 years later, in 1976, that women were admitted for the first time with the induction of 81 female midshipmen.
It’s against these two seemingly diverse times in history that readers will meet two young women whose ferocious spirits and wills to succeed transcend their circumstances.
In 1918, shy and retiring Emmaline Balakin works at the Dead Letter Office in Washington. A fateful letter lands on her desk with a name she recognizes from her past. The discovery prompts her to volunteer as a librarian on the frontlines in France taking her well out of her comfort zone. Once on the ground, slugging through mud, cold tents and a storage closet for lodging, she discovers more than she had dreamed hovering between dread, desire, and devotion.
It’s 1976. Kathleen Carre is gutsy and smart. She yearns for a life structured by discipline and loyalty to country. She leaves the secure home of her nurturing and supportive grandmother when she is accepted into the first coed class of the U.S. Naval Academy. She’s a pioneer in a place that’s not always pleasant. Personal tragedy strikes at the same time that she is targeted for offenses beyond sex discrimination. She’ll need to trust and hone survival skills she didn’t know she had.
The Power of Words
I saw a quote the other day from Italian sociologist, educator, and poet Danilo Dolci, who died in 1997: “It’s important to know that words don’t move mountains. Work, exacting work moves mountains.”
The quote stayed with me as I prepared to write this review because the power of the written word plays a large role in both the lives of Emmaline and Kathleen.
They are both suffering, in their respective timeframes, with the consequences from what others have written and by how those words have affected their motivations and desires in life.
Both young women find themselves exercising their spiritual muscles as well as their physical strength with hourly and daily acts of faith: their faith in themselves, their value and worth, bravery and courage, and, hopefully, the innate goodness of their fellow men. In both their stories, actions do speak louder than words as they are propelled to face their fears and create new destinies.
Armstrong doesn’t shy from other issues her protagonists encounter from sexism, racism, book banning, propaganda, treason, and other ills of the day.
While Emmaline’s story takes place against the backdrop of war, and Kathleen’s in the passageways of a military institution, this is not a book about war or the military. The overarching theme focuses on the transformative power of words, how the lives of these two young women are uplifted and empowered, enough to affect change, to move mountains in their life journeys.
The narratives of both Emmaline and Kathleen are primarily written in the first person. They read like entries in a personal journal with lots of notes about what is happening in the world at that time.
Readers will move back and forth between 1918 and 1976 as their stories unfold. Cleverly, names will surface, references will be made, and the mystery and magic of how their lives are interconnected will be revealed. No spoilers, but it’s a fascinating and brilliantly crafted ending.
This is a work of fiction set against real historical events. The characters are extremely engaging. I found myself cheering on both these young resilient women and wanting their sacrifices to yield serenity. I suspect you will as well.
‘The War Librarian’
By Addison Armstrong
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Aug. 9, 2022
Paperback: 384 pages
source: the epoc times