Sunday, March 19, 2023

March Read: The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes


Have you ever heard of the Armed Services Editions? They were paperbacks of novels that were shipped overseas to U.S. troops during World War 2. Many novels we consider classics were part of this giant effort to combat Nazi book burning and censorship. The books also provided soldiers with reading material to give them some relief from the constant stress of battle. 

Author Brianna Labuskes uses the ASE as a large part of her novel. Vivian Childs is living in New York City in 1944. Her husband has been killed in battle, and while mourning his loss, she's been working as the publicity director for the Council on Books in Wartime. She's working hard to keep books flowing into the hands of soldiers overseas, but has one Senator who is using his personal dislike of President Roosevelt to cripple the program. Senator Taft wants to censor the books, and if the amendment goes through, it means thousands of books will be banned from the program. 

The plot of the story also involves two women: Althea James and Hannah Brecht. Althea is a young American author who has been invited by Joseph Goebbels to Germany in a cultural exchange program in 1933. It's a thinly disguised attempt for the growing Nazi power to influence American minds. Althea is pretty naive and is excited to leave her small town in Maine. She's living in Berlin, is escorted around by a handsome young man, and has been exposed to Nazi idealism. 

Hannah Brecht is a Jewish woman living in Paris in 1936. The Nazis have not yet invaded France, but it's expected they will. Hannah has fled from Germany after a devastating event, and now works at a library that collects copies of the banned books students gleefully burned one night in May, 1933. She's haunted by the events of 1933 that left her feeling betrayed by those closest to her. 

All three stories connect together in New York, 1944 as Viv works to create a last ditch effort to bring awareness to Senator Taft's amendment.  The novel switches back and forth between 1933, 1936, and 1944. I didn't have any trouble following along, and each of the women were strong characters. I can't say I liked any one of them better than the other two. It was interesting to read about the same war from three different places and eleven years apart. I was especially interested in the ASE history and what it did to boost morale for soldiers. 

It took me a bit to get into this novel. Part of that was, as always, my reluctance to read about the rise of Nazi power and all of the horrible, horrible things that happened. What was interesting is the idea of book banning and censorship occurring here, in the U.S.  In light of what is currently going on in our schools and public libraries, this really hit home and because of that, this was a powerful, timely read for me. 

As someone who has worked their entire adult life selling books, talking about books, recommending books, reviewing books, selecting books for a library--I find censorship horrific. Banning books? Hell no. I speak from personal experience as a young reader who had books taken away from me because my mom didn't think they were appropriate. Over 40 years later, I remember every book and every time they were taken away from me. I remember being so angry about that, and telling myself I would never, ever do that to my future children. I still, deep down, carry that resentment. I am one of those kids who wasn't allowed to read what they wanted. It didn't stop me, instead it fired me up. Read with your child! Talk to them about why they're interested in reading a particular book. Don't ban a book because you don't like it. Don't keep your children from reading something that interests them.  As Hannah says in this novel

    I can tell you that banning books, burning books, blocking books is often used as a way to erase a people, a belief system, a culture. To say those voices don't belong here even when those writers represent the very best of a country.

Okay. I'll get off my soapbox. 

This novel has some interesting historical background, and if you're interested in learning more about the American Service Edition program, read  When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning. 

This would be a great book club selection with plenty to discuss. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel about love, betrayal, censorship, apathy, and friendship. Historical fiction fans will be intrigued by the ASE program and the events of May, 1933 in Berlin. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

No comments :

Post a Comment