Blink Book Review #8: "The Personal Librarian" by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
By Reba Campbell
“The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray was such a delightful surprise. Historical fiction isn’t normally my top reading choice, but to stay true to one of my summer reading goals, I’m trying out new genres and new writers. This one was spot on.
The book follows the life of a young woman in the early 1900s who is hired by the mega-wealthy financier JP Morgan to be the personal librarian for his extensive manuscript and art collection in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. While this was a perfectly acceptable type of position for an unmarried young white woman of the time, the intriguing story line of the book is based around the fact that Belle da Costa Greene is actually Belle Marion Greener, a Black woman.
The book builds from Belle’s family story that includes her father, Richard Greener, the first Black Harvard graduate who spent his life as an activist for equal rights. Belle’s father leaves the family over the fact that her mother wanted to raise their family as white which was possible because of the lightness of their complexions. (Although the book never exactly explains how the family of the first Black Harvard graduate could fly so easily under the radar, I wrote that off to the times. After all, there was no internet back then to allow for deep dives into anyone’s past.)
After JP Morgan hires Belle, she carefully crafts her public persona built around her intelligence, beauty and inner strength. Over the years, she accumulated great power and wealth – neither of which would be been available to her had she been seen as Black. Her sometimes over-the-top behavior and flamboyant dress seemed to draw attention away from questions that might arise about her race. In an NPR interview, the authors said it was as if she was “almost was hiding in plain sight.”
This book has all the elements of a great story – influence and power, love and lust, wealth and poverty, family conflicts and human frailties. But it also raises complex questions about race that our society still struggles with a century later.
An interesting aside to this historical part of the book, Belle’s parents lived for a short time in Columbia while her father taught at USC during the university’s brief period of integration during Reconstruction. There’s a statue in his memory in front of the Thomas Cooper Library.
The historical notes and author’s notes at the end of the book shed light on how the authors blended history with fiction. I often skip over these last pages of a book once I’ve finished reading. In this case, I’m glad I didn’t as they provide rich insight and context around many of the issues raised in the book.
In 2022, Reba Campbell set out to get off the screens and back to books for the summer. She set a goal of reading a book a week. Her accountability was writing short Blink Book Reviews (so short you can read them in a blink). Join Reba’s Blink Book Review Facebook group to follow along for the 2023 summer series. Reba is president of The Medway Group can be reached at email@example.com.
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