Janet Skeslien Charles is the award-winning author of Moonlight in Odessa and The Paris Library. Her shorter work has appeared in revues such as Slice and Montana Noir. She learned about the history of the American Library in Paris while working there as the programs manager. She divides her time between Montana and Paris.
The Grateful Reader Review by Dorothy Schwab
Paris, books and a library – C’est très magnifique! Readers will fall into the lives of the mysterious, foreigner Odile Gustafson and her inquisitive next-door neighbor, twelve-year old Lily.
Author Janet Skeslien Charles weaves Odile’s experiences at the American Library in Paris during World War ll, with Lily’s uncommon and insatiable desire to know about all things French. Lily has requested her class book report on Ivanhoe be changed to a report on France-so she has an excuse to interview Odile and find out how in the world she landed in Froid, Montana from Paris! When her insistent knock goes unanswered, Lily boldly steps right into Odile’s living room, snooping around the record collection and the extensive library. Odile oddly appears from the bedroom and surprisingly agrees to the interview! Thus, Odile enters Lily’s life, and they are both changed forever.
Odile had been obsessed with books and libraries since her Aunt Caro introduced her to the Dewey Decimal System and the card catalog at the age of nine: “Inside you’ll find the secrets of the universe.” She begins the interview by telling Lily the completely absorbing tale of her time at the American Library in Paris and how the brave, dedicated staff determined, against ALL odds, that the library would remain open during the German occupation of France. Readers will come to respect the directress, Miss Reeder; adore Boris, the Russian head librarian famous for his bibliotherapy; and wonder about trustee and real-life writer, Countess Clara de Chambrun. The author’s strong character development of endearing staff involved with the daily operations, many subscribers, “habituès”, and volunteers such as Margaret, add several more chilling chapters to Odile’s accounting of her years in war torn Paris. The relationship between Odile’s parents, her twin, Remy, and their involvement in war activities adds complexity to her unlikely arrival in the United States. How DID Odile get to Froid, Montana? That is a “story within a story!”
When asked by a reporter, “Why were books being sent to soldiers to improve morale? Why not wine? Odile answered, “because no other thing possesses that mystical faculty to make people see with other people’s eyes. The Library is a bridge of books between cultures.”
When asked by Lily, “The best thing about Paris? Odile answered, “It’s a city of readers.” Join Odile and Lily in this “view of Paris” through the heart and lens of a librarian in The Paris Library.
The following is an excerpt from the history of the library. The highlighted names are characters in the novel:
“With the coming of World War II, the occupation of France by the Nazi regime, and the deepening threats to French Jews, Library director Dorothy Reeder and her staff and volunteers provided heroic service by operating an underground, and potentially dangerous, book-lending service to Jewish members barred from libraries. One staff member, Boris Netchaeff, was shot by the Gestapo when he failed to raise his hands quickly enough during a surprise inspection.
When Reeder was sent home for her safety at the end of 1941, Countess de Chambrun rose to the occasion to lead the Library. In a classic Occupation paradox, the happenstance of her son’s marriage to the daughter of the Vichy prime minister, Pierre Laval, and her family’s other social and business connections ensured the Library a friend in high places. That, along with the pre-war esteem of German “Library Protector” Dr. Hermann Fuchs for Dorothy Reeder and the Library, granted the institution a near-exclusive right to keep its doors open and its collections largely uncensored throughout the war. A French diplomat later said the Library had been to occupied Paris “an open window on the free world.”