The Librarian of Burned Books
I had no experience with author Brianna Labuskes when I picked up The Librarian of Burned Books, but I found the novel’s subject matter intriguing. Covering an underutilized piece of WWII history, the story shows three heroines who fight for something that is doubtless dear to most AAR readers’ hearts – the freedom to write, publish and read the stories that matter to us.
New York, 1943: Two weeks after Viv (Vivian) Childs receives the telegram advising her that her husband Edward has been killed in action, his last letter arrives in the mail. He uses that final missive to tell Viv how much the ASE volumes, portable paperback novels shipped to soldiers overseas, mean to him and the men serving with him. A flame is lit within Viv, and she becomes a champion for these stories, determined to honor Edward by seeing to it that America’s warriors have no shortage of reading material.
Senator Taft, a powerful member of Congress, is waging his own war. In an effort to prevent GIs from voting overwhelmingly for Roosevelt, he has cobbled a ridiculous addendum to the Soldier’s Voting Acting which severely restricts what can be included in the ASE books. Determined to keep beloved novels like The Call of the Wild and The Grapes of Wrath in the hands of those giving their all for their country, Viv decides to sponsor an event that will turn American voters against any hint of censorship. This will pressure Taft to either agree to a change in the wording of the addendum or risk being voted out of office.Her keynote speakers will be the reticent, enigmatic woman who serves as curator of the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books in Brooklyn, and the reclusive popular author Althea James. Now all she has to do is get them to agree.
In 1933, just ten years prior to Viv having her epiphany on book banning, Althea James is experiencing her first real taste of freedom. A guest of Joseph Goebbels’ cultural exchange program, she is entranced by the sheer beauty of Berlin, with its captivating markets, soaring architecture, and fascinating citizenry. A small-town girl from rural Maine, she has never seen anything quite so lovely. She is less enamored with the lavish parties at which she, a successful debut author, is feted and fussed over. However, quite a bit of the sting is alleviated by her escort/liaison to all things German, the dashing, flirtatious, and ridiculously handsome Professor Diedrich Mueller. The glitter and glamor of her experiences and the charm of her partner have Althea giddy with joy and excitement – until she meets fellow American Dev (Deveraux) Charles. An actress, Dev drags Althea to the alternate side of the city – the cabarets where outspoken MCs question the status quo, same-sex couples glide elegantly along dance floors or kiss passionately in shadowy corners, and where she meets Hannah, sister to a man who leads a group of resistance fighters. It is through them she learns what is happening beneath the sparkling veneer the Nazis have been so careful to show her.
Hannah Brecht knows she is fortunate indeed to be spending 1936 in Paris rather than Berlin, but she also recognizes that France is far from a perfect refuge. The City of Lights is too full of Nazi sympathizers and anti-Semitism for the Jewish Hannah to feel safe and secure there. Fortunately, she has found a home away from home at the German Library of Burned Books. Hannah learned through bitter experience that violent revolt and outspoken protesting can be silenced easily by eliminating the dissenters. Her hope is that she and her fellow emigrés can shift the growing tide of fascism in France through the dissemination of ideas – especially those held in the books that the Nazis feared enough to destroy.
According to the back blurb, The Librarian of Burned Books was
Inspired by the true story of the Council of Books in Wartime – the WWII organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, and authors to use books as “weapons in the war of ideas.
The author does a great job of utilizing that ideal in her own work and highlighting the way written thoughts turn into physical actions. I loved how she shows censorship as a battlefield – Viv goes toe to toe numerous times with Senator Taft over what books can and can’t be sent to soldiers while Hannah does her best to ensure her ideals are given equal prominence as those of the fascists. The plot sounds almost existential in nature, but a brisk pace and plenty of action keep the story both entertaining and riveting.
All three of our female leads are go-getters. Viv doesn’t back down even when faced with the formidable opposition Senator Taft is able to bring against her. She’s bright, articulate, and ready to take on anything or anybody that stands in her way. I especially liked how she is able to think her way around her problems – when one plan doesn’t work she almost always has a plan B. I liked her friends, too – they’re supportive, but they challenge her when needed. Althea begins our tale as an ingénue, very wide-eyed and excited about all the world has to offer but gullible as well. As she learns the truth about Nazism and just what she is participating in, she shows quiet strength and resilience which makes her very easy to root for. Her intelligence shines through once the surface of her naïveté has been cracked a bit. Hannah was my least favorite of the heroines, and that was because I found her a bit hot-headed, disloyal, and credulous. She’s a creature more of instinct than thought, sensuous and seductive but coldhearted as well. Hannah believes a lie about someone who deeply loves her with zero evidence, just conjecture, and they to explain the truth to no avail. An event towards the end really cemented my opinion of her, where several people are involved in a conspiracy, and she punishes the one who had participated the least the harshest.
Not loving Hannah meant I wasn’t crazy about her romance with Althea. I spent a lot of time wishing Althea would choose Dev instead, who is fascinating, smart, and sexy without any of Hannah’s more troublesome traits. There is also a love story between Viv and Hale, a man from her childhood with whom she has a complicated history. I struggled with their liaison because what had split them apart in the past showed a callousness and control on Hale’s part I tend not to like in my heroes. Fortunately, the author shows enough good in these love stories to mostly make up for these minor objections.
My only other quibble is that the prose could be a bit purple and frivolous which occasionally felt discordant with the serious subject matter of the narrative.
Those minor issues aside, The Librarian of Burned Books is an excellent WWII novel that sheds some interesting light on an overlooked portion of the era. I would recommend it to women’s fiction fans who enjoy books with strong female leads and rich history.
I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.
|Review Date:||March 3, 2023|
|Book Type:||Historical Fiction | Women's Fiction|
|Review Tags:||f/f romance | libraries | WWII|
Glad this is good; I’m getting so burned out on WWII-set women’s fiction but it’s nice to hear about exceptions to the rule!
I found it fairly well done and I liked the unique history in the tale.