The War Librarian by Addison Armstrong

Published August 9, 2022

The Grateful Reader Review by Dorothy Schwab

A remarkable story about “the magic and power of words to give comfort and effect change.” Addison Armstrong weaves this dual timeline of the upbringing and youth of Emmaline Balakin and Kathleen Carre into a tale of women who are filled with stamina, courage, and leadership.

Emmaline’s story set in 1918 France during WWl is based on the letters of real-life war librarian Mary Frances Isom. With Armstrong’s deeply researched details of soldiers in the trenches and sensory filled descriptions of the war-ravaged French countryside readers are truly “mired in the muddy lanes” and politics of war as Emmaline delivers her wheelbarrow of books to soldiers.  Emmaline draws strength from memories of her parents and why they left Russia; not because the Czar was banning weapons, but because he was banning books. “Ideas are more dangerous than war” energizes her passionate belief that books are for everyone, no matter race, religion, political beliefs, or economic standing.  Armstrong’s depictions of the colored soldiers’ treatment places readers squarely into the remote crowded tents with no heat and lack of prompt medical care. The scenes of Emmaline reading aloud to the colored soldiers “being more comforting than mama’s blackberry pie and like a magic carpet” caused tears of joy as she shared the love of reading.  Emmaline’s beliefs and courage to do what’s right has a life changing effect on her service as a war librarian.

Emmaline’s war experiences are alternated with Kathleen Carre’s 1976 experiences in the first class of females at the United States Naval Academy. Kathleen’s grandmother, Nana, having served in the WWl Motor Corps, is her hero and the driving force for Kathleen to serve her country.  Armstrong creates strong conflict and presents the prejudices of females intruding in a “man’s world” as Nana so aptly warns her. The insecure male cadets, hoping to force the women to leave, were relentless in their cruel treatment, slurs, and ransacking of rooms; only considered hazing by the USNA. This maddening harassment and the collective strategies of the female plebes truly sets these women apart and makes them heroes for exposing the truth. This emotionally challenging read requires some calm down breaks! Addison Armstrong’s The War Librarian accurately depicts racial injustices without being offensive and focuses on obvious gender biases. Read for satisfying justice in the end.

I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a five-year old writing stories about talking school supplies and ants getting their revenge on exterminators. While a junior at Vanderbilt University studying elementary education, I wrote my first historical fiction novel, The Light of Luna Park, and sold it to G.P. Putnam’s Sons in January of my senior year. Now that I’ve graduated with my Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and Language & Literacy Studies, as well as a Master’s in Reading Education with an ESL endorsement, I’m teaching third grade English language learners in Nashville and continuing to write.

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